Welcome back to The Last Bite, our new column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars, markets, and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up?
Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. In the latest installment, we visit one of the last open-air markets in tunis to sample fresh rose petals, horse meat, and spices.
Growing up in Philadelphia, the supermarkets of my childhood were just that: super. Extra-large, jumbo-sized, fluorescent-light filled boxes where everything was stocked in neat rows and the food—actual living, colorful food—was relegated to the shop's narrow perimeters. But every summer, those grocery stores would give way to crowded, local markets when I spent my holidays with my father's family in Tunis.
On special occasions, my tiny grandmother would hold my hand—the other clutching a large straw basket—we would set off to the marché central, a massive building behind Avenue Bourguiba in the city center. Like all the other old ladies, she hid her wallet in her bra, kept her cream-colored headscarf in place by biting down on the two corners, and had a lifetime's worth of refined bartering skills.
The loud, bustling market—with its vaulted ceilings and relentless crush of haggling customers—was overwhelming for an eight-year-old accustomed to Costco, but now it's one of my favorite places in the city. Since the market was established in 1891, it has continued to expand. These days, almost 600 vendors sell their products in designated sections for fish, fruits, and vegetables, spices, poultry, meat, dairy, dried goods, and flowers, under a criss-cross of miniature Tunisian flags.
For several months in 2007, the marché central closed for 3.5 million Euros worth of renovations, financed by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) in collaboration with the municipality of Tunis. Since 1992, the AFD has worked on projects to stimulate the Tunisian economy, including a specific program rehabilitating the country's food markets. The marché's wooden stalls were completely restored, bricks were relayed, (some) equipment modernized, and the marché was protected by canvas tarps.
The marché is open all week, though half its stalls are shuttered on Mondays (a good occasion to buy slightly discounted produce). It's best to start in the marché's main room, home to fruits and vegetables. The stalwarts of Tunisian cuisine are all here: potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, cauliflower, onion, peppers and zucchini. Then there are the seasonal offerings; when I visited the market in mid May, there were softly curling cucumbers with a hairy outer skin, piles of fresh capers, and fleshy apricots. Bunches of sweet carrots laid on beds of dill, and blueish globes of cabbage teetered in precarious piles.
If the marché central had a celebrity, it would be Hamza Ayari. He sells vegetables and moonlights as a photographer. The first time I met him, he unearthed a Nikon D810 (a gift from a German filmmaker) from under a pile of lemons and began snapping my picture, directing me to turn this way and that with the authority of a seasoned fashion photographer.
"I only take pictures in the souk," Hamza said. He's been photographing "everyday life" for the past ten years, snapping pictures of toddlers sitting on citrus and teenagers draped in the Tunisian flag he keeps conveniently located next to his scales, should a prop be needed. Once a week, he prints the pictures out for his clients, giving the portraits away for free.
A few stalls away, Mokhtar put down his cigarette to weigh out spicy peppers on a teal balance scale, a relic from the 1950s. He's been selling veggies for the past 45 years. Things have been "OK," since the 2011 revolution, he said, though sales have fallen in the past few years and there are decidedly less tourists. The country's rising food prices are partially to blame—the marché central, with its carefully labeled products, is out of many Tunisians' price range.
Some of the market's more expensive offerings are floral. The flower market isn't open every day; we were lucky when we turned into a small passageway and saw Hossein, a handsome septuagenarian flower farmer sitting in front of a pile of plucked plants. Around him were giant bags of rose petals and attara, an aromatic plant that's distilled in water to make a perfumed syrup for sweets. A kilo of attara can cost up to 40 TND (around $20).
We left the flowers for the preserved goods to find Ayman, who opened a small stall two years ago selling wild mountain honey, homemade harissa (a spicy chili paste), and spices. His spices are vividly colored and smell incredibly rich; he hand-grinds everything. He also makes bsissa, a mix of dried fruits, spices, chickpeas and lentils, which is mixed with honey and olive oil to make a fortifying paste. It's gluten-free and vegan, which few people know or care about in Tunis, but I made a mental note to bring some back to Brooklyn.
There are stalls with soft mounds of Tunisian-style ricotta and freshly made white cheese flecked with parsley, which is handed out to customers on the edge of long knives. We passed by butchers selling tiny plucked quails and piles of chicken liver (we're in poultry by now) before arriving at the horse meat section. Originally the work of Maltese who had expansive horse farms, it's now Tunisians who sell horse steaks and charcuterie, their stalls accessorized with plastic and plush horse figurines.
The charcuterie is made on premise; I watched a man, covered up to his elbows in bright red meat, grind out a sausage. Mehdi, a young guy who's been selling horse meat since he was 18, sent us off with a free bag of sausage. I nibbled on a piece that had been cut into a half-moon shape. It was my first time eating horse, but it was so heavily spiced, I couldn't make out any flavor other than a general meatiness.
We circled back around the marché and found ourselves in the fish section, the floor slick with water, fish guts, and cigarette butts. The fish and seafood were laid out on beds of crushed ice; we purchased a few glassy-eyed bluefish fat with fish eggs, had them gutted and headed to a small restaurant tucked into a corner of the market. For a few dinars, the owners charcoal grill your fish, serving it with French fries, harissa, an entire baguette, and kefteji, a Tunisian mash of fried vegetables.
The fish needed lemon, but the restaurant owner shrugged his shoulders. I turned around to find Hamza, but he had already closed his shop for the day. Behind us, a lone man was enjoying his fillet. My friend Wajdi offered him a spoonful of fish eggs in exchange for a lemon wedge—a mismatched deal, perhaps, but we squeezed the lemon onto the fish, and ate it greedily with our fingers.
The marché central is located on Rue d'Allemagne, Tunis. Open all week (Mondays only some stalls are open).