North African Pasta, the Italian Influence or is it?
Pasta is synonymous with Italian cuisine and is an integral part of their culinary heritage so it is hard to believe that its origin may have been outside its borders. Food has always been a strong element in personal, national, religious and cultural identity and it is no different in Italy. Italians are quick to note its culinary influence on Tunisian cuisine but looking deeper into history reveals a more complex and rich connection between the two countries and other countries of the Arab world.
In the 16th and continuing until the 19th century, Jews living in Livorno (Leghorn) Italy migrated to Tunis making them one of the earliest Italian immigrant groups living there. They joined the established Jewish community which consisted mainly of descendents of those expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the Great Inquisition of 1492. These Jews, who were traders and merchants by trade, did not assimilate into the cultural and economic lifestyle of the native Jews although both could trace their ancestry to Spain and Portugal. The food they introduced to Tunisian was a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Claudia Rodin explores the Italian influence on Tunisian cuisine in her book The Book of Jewish Food.
In the 19th century Italian immigrants, mainly traders and professionals looking for business opportunities settled in Tunisia. Towards the end of the 19th century the economic crisis in Italy created a flood of immigrants from Sardinia and Sicily and as well as political exiles. The Kingdom of Italy eventually annexed Tunisia in 1879 trying to offset increasing French and British control of North Africa. By the 1940’s Italy lost its stronghold in Tunisia to the French who themselves were not able to control the country for much longer. After years of rebellion, the Tunsians gained their independence in 1956.
The Italians are credited on having introduced pasta to Tunisia but tomato sauce was already popular as tomatoes were first introduced to North Africa from the New World before they become known in Europe. What about the pasta? Did the Italians really introduce it to North Africa or was it the other way around? That is a question which I will eventually answer but for now here is a recipe inspired by the North African sun.
Tunisian Macaroni with Meatballs
There are many pasta recipes in Tunisia and often they include chickpeas, lentils and fava beans in their ingredients, sometimes all together (known locally as Maqaruna bi’l Dibabish or bi’l Kenakash) . As I forgot to soak legumes overnight I omitted them and decided on a less bulky Tunisian inspired Macaroni and meatball recipe. Paprika, caraway, cayenne pepper, harissa, ground coriander seeds are the spices used most often from recipes I read on the internet or in cookbooks. Sometimes I also add a bit of cumin, a spice less often used in macaroni dishes. Evelyne, my neighbor, says her Tunisian mother makes her macaroni using lots of paprika.
100 grams tomato paste
4 tomatoes, blended until liquefied
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon caraway
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
For the meatballs
500 grams of ground beef, as least 20% fat otherwise it will be too dry
1 onion, grated
2 slices bread, soaked in water, squeezed dry
1/2 cup parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon harissa or paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway
500 grams dried pasta, such as penne or other medium sized shape
For the sauce
Fry the onion in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil until it just begins to brown, add the garlic and mix for a few seconds. Add the tomato paste mix continually to bring out its full flavor (a method called pincer in French, when the sugars in the tomato paste begin to caramelize). Add the liquefied tomatoes and cook for 30-40 minutes so the sauce thickens and the tomatoes are fully cooked. Add the spices.
While the sauce is cooking, combine all the ingredients for the meatballs and knead until well mixed. Shape into small ping pong sized balls. These can be fried before adding them to the sauce but I usually omit this step.
When the sauce is done, bring to a boil and add the meatballs. The sauce should barely cover the meatballs as they shrink while cooking. Add a bit more water if necessary. Cook the meatballs on low for 20-30 minutes. If the sauce is watery then remove the meatballs and reduce the sauce to a thicker consistency. Combine and adjust seasoning.
Cook the pasta according to package directions, adding salt in the cooking water. Pasta is not cooked al dente, but is preferred softer in Tunisia. Mix the sauce, meatballs and pasta together.
Although not traditional, adding a piece of preserved lemon in the meatballs might make a nice addition.
A Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford A. Wright
Tunisian food that Ilan loved, the Ro’a family (a Hebrew language family cookbook in memory of their son Ilan)
My favorite Tunisian neighbor, Evelyne Kashri