T is for tinned tuna though Tunisia has a long coast and lots of fresh fish

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 11, 2015
Tuna cans in the supermarket

Tuna cans in the supermarket

What is it about Tunisians and tins of tuna? I’ve seen giant ones in the supermarkets, the sort that can take a kg of the stuff. It was the size of a brick – a round one that could conceivably be used as a doorstop. Till you opened it and consumed it.

For Tunisians, that wouldn’t take long. They seem to eat canned tuna in almost every dish. A simple salad (of cucumber and tomatoes) may have a thin layer of pink tuna fish. Ditto Lablabi, Tunisia’s famous chickpea soup. And the brik, a deep-fried pasty that might be shaped like a samosa or like a Cornish pasty. Canned tuna might be the topping for pizza. The filling for a sandwich. Inside a chapatti (pronounced sha-pa-tee in this former French colony).

Lablabi with tuna

Lablabi with tuna

salad with a light scattering of tuna

Salad with a light scattering of tuna

tuna pizza

Tuna pizza

It’s hard to understand why Tunisians adore tinned tuna in this way considering the fresh thing is freely available and very good. Of course, canned tuna is cheap but price cannot a passion make. Tunisia has 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline so there should really be more propensity to eat fresh fish (even if small, affordable amounts) than out of cans.

As David Charles, a British writer, hitch-hiker, biker and foodie put it after he cycled around Tunisia: “Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.”

Someone like actress Jessica Simpson would probably be perpetually confused. Remember when she asked if she were eating chicken or fish? “I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘Chicken of the Sea’.”