If we are the sum of the places we've lived, the people we've known, the experiences we've had in life, then there's a little bit of Tunisia in me. When we first arrived in Tunisia in 2005, my first mission was to discover the cuisine. At our local market, I was perplexed that there was not a wide variety of produce. After all, Tunisia was once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, and fed the whole Roman Empire. Under Ben Ali's regime, certain crops were subsidized, so that is what people grew, which meant one type of tomato, one variety of onion, and many of the best that the country had to offer of olives, dates, etc. were exported out of the country. In addition, because of the closed economy, very little imported produce was allowed to compete with the local economy, so at certain times of the year, onions were literally unavailable.
Strangely, the tourist restaurants rarely featured real Tunisian cooking, other than a few popular dishes. Fresh fish was always central on the menu, but it was hard to find what made Tunisian cuisine stand out. When I started eating in the souk, I began to discover really tasty, simple dishes. Kind of like eating street food, no frills, but intensely good.
I bought a cookbook and started to cook some of these dishes at home. This is the chicken dish I made most often, and I decided to make it again this week since it had been years, and like many others, I've had Tunisia on my mind.
Chicken with Dates and Pine Nuts
Adapted from Cuisine Tunisienne by Christiane Desbordes
This is a wonderful winter dish, rich, creamy and slightly sweet. It can be served over rice, but I chose spelt couscous for a little variety in our grain consumption. I've made versions of this dish substituting the dates with apricots, and using slivered almonds in the place of pine nuts.
1 3lb chicken (1.5 kg)
2 tablespoons oil
2 onions, chopped
a dozen dates, pitted and torn in half lengthwise
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup water
3.5 ounces (100 grams) crème fraîche
1/2 cup pine nuts
Cut the chicken into pieces (or you can use chicken thighs, or even breasts cut into morsels). In a medium saute pan, brown the chicken in the oil, then add the onions and saute for another three minutes. Add the curry powder, flour and water and simmer for five minutes. Add the dates, salt and pepper, then cover and simmer for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
During this time, toast the pine nuts in a bare frying pan, watching carefully not to burn them.
Remove the chicken from the pan and let the sauce reduce slightly, then remove from the heat and stir in the crème fraîche.
Serve over rice or couscous, sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts.