If you ask me about my culinary identity, I do not have to stop and think before I say French Tunisian. I would most likely then point to growing up in California as major influencer, which is the only culinary inspiration given to me by my mother's side of the family. As Jewish immigrants to the U.S., her parents worked so hard to assimilate that they cast aside any dishes they may have remembered from their childhoods in Eastern Europe. The most edible food I ate at my grandmothers house came from the bagel shop down the street.
In light of her upbringing my mother didn’t put much effort into what we ate, raising me on Lean Cuisine, bagel dogs and anything I could melt cheddar on. So it was a bit of a shock to the system every summer when I visited my father in France. His mother was one of the best cooks I have ever known. Her table groaned under the weight of dozens of dishes, little vegetable salads scented with harissa and lemon juice, a giant pile of couscous and meaty boulettes. Tunisian Jewish cookery is little known outside of the ethnic group, unlike their neighbors in Morocco. While many dishes are similar, Moroccan food tends to be a bit more nuanced and complex, a play between sweet and savory, which probably led to it's increased fame. All of this meant every time I sat at my grandmothers table was an education.
The history of Jews in Tunisia goes back to Pre-Roman times. On the side of my grandfather, Leon Cohen, we have no entry date to the country. They were there for enough generations to have forgotten how they got there. Maybe during the Spanish Inquisition? On my grandmother's side, it was her mother who emigrated from Italy to Tunisia before she was born. Tunisia had been a protectorate of France since 1881, so most Jewish children attended French schools, read French books, and French was their first language. According to my grandparents, they lived side by side with the Arabs, both relatively tolerant of the other. This all changed in 1967 after the Six Days War in Israel. The Jewish population dropped from over 100,000 to under 2,000 in the span of a few years, most immigrating to either Israel or France. My family left in 1968, when my father was 16, and wound up in Sarcelles, a small suburb of Paris which became the Tunis of the North.
I was living in Paris during my third year of college, and spending a lot of time with my family. Going from every other year visits and monthly phone calls to daily text messages and Friday night dinners was a huge change and quite wonderful. It was also the year that my beloved grandfather died. Not long afterwards, my grandmother broke her hip and could no longer do the cooking she was famous for.
My Aunt Lisette and I, who know the least about cooking the traditional Shabbat meal, decided it was time to step up and give it a go. With Grandma on the couch, we spent two whole days in her tiny kitchen, shuffling tastes to her for critique and scribbling notes. Exhausted, we marveled at how she pulled this off every week, for an entire lifetime, with four kids, in a minuscule kitchen with only a paring knife. I can still hear her raspy voice, demonstrating how much garlic to put in by holding up the tip of her thumb. The meal was wonderful, at least half as good as when she made it, and I can say that she herself was very pleased.
I have my notes somewhere, and when I find them I will put a recipe up. Of course it was in my francophile period, so they are all written in French and measured using grams, so it may take a little while...for now, check out this old NY Times article which has a little more history and a recipe for Brik, a great Tunisian street food.