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Tunisian Cuisine: The Vegetarian Abroad

Tunisian cuisine is rightly praised as richly flavourful and delicious, with a huge choice of dishes, specialities, and regional variations to be found as you travel the country. The local restaurants are packed with tasty delights, from spicy merguez sausages to terrific Berber lamb platters, and zitounia, a fantastic dish of veal simmered in tomato and onion sauce.

But what about vegetarian options? As I found out during a visit to the coastal resort city of Sousse, this can be a little tricky. Sousse has plenty of eateries serving international cuisine – Japanese, Indian, Italian and so forth – which are vegetarian-friendly, but what if you want to stick with Tunisian cuisine yet avoid meat or fish?

Tunisian Cuisine for the Vegetarian 1

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Meat is everywhere, and while my partner salivated at the prospect of spicy chicken tajine, my meek requests for any veggie alternatives were often met with a puzzled shrug or a finger towards a fish dish, closely followed by a suggestion to pick out the bits of lamb I didn’t really want when the food arrived. Yet all is not lost for the traveling vegetarian – if you put in a little effort, Tunisian cuisine offers plenty of excellent choices and the restaurants of Sousse can be a box of delights.

Appetizers

A staple in most eateries, harissa is a much-loved part of the country’s cuisine – a spicy paste of chili, garlic, cumin and olive oil, it is typically served with crusty oven-baked bread or pita and is a great way to start your meal. The country’s famed salade mechouia is a grilled salad of tomatoes, peppers, and various spices, but ask the waiter not to add tuna to the dish (some restaurants do this as a matter of course).

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Chakchouka is a hearty ragout, created using chickpeas, peppers, onions and garlic in a rich tomato sauce – think ratatouille and you’re pretty much there – while ajlouk qura’a is a mouth-watering zucchini salad with plenty of harissa to give it a kick. Head to Le Guepard or Mio Mondo restaurants for some lovely examples of these dishes.

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Mains

It wouldn’t be a trip to Tunisia without a couscous dish, and these are ubiquitous, varied and very, very tasty. Near the city’s medina, the Restaurant du Peuple offers fantastic authentic cuisine in a well-appointed setting, and the star of the show for me was their vegetable couscous (or couscous aux legumes): a bowl chock-full of onions, chickpeas, potatoes, and harissa. Some eateries also offer a vegetarian version of their spicy ojja (it usually contains sausages) – the mixture of harissa, tomatoes, peppers and paprika is delicious, while an egg cooks on top of the sizzling combination.

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Chickpea and lashings of garlic make up the main components of the wonderful lablabi soup, but restaurants can – again – add tuna, so make sure you tell the staff you don’t want it in the mixture. The same applies to the tajine, a casserole or rugged omelette of egg, bread, potato and spices and which can be a great veggie option – just make sure it has no chicken added to the mix, as sometimes this is done without asking diners if they eat meat. Head to Queen and Co for intimate yet stylish surroundings where many of these dishes are served to perfection.

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Desserts

Tunisia has a plethora of desserts made from some variation of honey, nuts and pastry but the cream of the crop has to be the delicious baklava: a sticky, crumbly slice of decadence which would satisfy even the most ardent sweet tooth and which I gorged on several times during my stay. Doughnuts topped with powdered sugar and pistachios are very popular too, as are myriad cookies, cakes and ice creams – Tunisia is awash with sugary pleasures.

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For a healthier option – and to assuage some of that sweet-laden guilt – most restaurants provide a fresh seasonal fruit platter to refresh your palette. My favorite spot during the visit was the outdoor terrace at L’Escargot restaurant, where I could watch the sun dip below the skyline while feasting on gooey treats.

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