Tunisian Cuisine — Falfal bil-Labid, Cucumber and Pepper Relish with Couscous

If there is a national dish of Tunisia, it is couscous, tiny pearls of dough steamed until just tender.  It is served with most meals and at all gatherings of any size.  A special cooking vessel called a kiska:s in Arabic or couscoussière in French (the two national languages), a kind of double boiler with separated segments for meats or vegetables and for couscous stacked on top of each other, is probably what sets Tunisian couscous apart from its North African neighbors and makes it the envy of the region.  The lower pot is for meats, vegetables, and spices, and the aromatic and flavorful steam they create is directed into the couscous pot above.

Our couscoussière was in the shop, so we made do with what we had on hand: a saucepan.  It worked just fine, though admittedly our final product was lacking in meaty, vegetably flavor from the lower pot.  To make up for it, we served our couscous with falfal bil-labid (recipe follows), a relish made from cucumbers and red peppers and flavored simply with lemon juice and salt.

Falfal bil-Labid

adapted from From the Lands of Figs and Olives by Habeeb Salloum and James Peters

SERVES 2 TO 3

  • 1 cucumber, peeled and cut into 3/4 inch pieces
  • 1 red bell pepper, cut into 3/4 inch pieces
  • 2 Tbs lemon juice
  • a pinch of salt
  • couscous for serving

First, the relish ingredients (the cucumber, pepper, lemon juice, and salt) were combined in a bowl:

relishmade

The bowl was covered and left to marinate in the refrigerator for about an hour.  Meanwhile, we prepared our couscous.  About a cup of dried couscous and a cup and a half of water were combined in a saucepan:

couscousstarted

The pan was brought just to a boil, then removed from the heat and set aside with the lid on so the couscous could absorb all the water:

couscoussetaside

After about fifteen minutes all the water was gone and the couscous had swelled and softened:

couscousdone

After stirring with a fork, the couscous had revealed its light, fluffy texture:

couscousfluffed

The lid was put back on the pan to keep the couscous warm until ready to serve.

After an hour in the fridge, the falfal bil-Labid looked ready to eat, the juices from the vegetables having leeched out into the lemon juice making a tasty dressing:

relishdone

The couscous was served with the relish on top, alongside our leblabi (Tunisian garbanzo bean soup):

tunisiaonplate

It might not occur to a more European-influenced cook to serve a crisp, tangy relish atop a starch, but it was a natural fit.  The sweetness and tartness of the relish were a fantastic pairing with the starchy couscous and rich, spicy soup.  We might one day travel to Tunisia for the Star Wars locations, but to overlook the excellent local food would be a regrettable mistake.

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