North African Cuisine

The Jews of North Africa ate spicy, aromatic foods, usually with couscous.

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Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jews crossed into North Africa and filtered into Tunisia, principally Tunis, joining the already‑settled community there in the Hara, the Jewish quarter, which had been established in the 11th century. An additional community from Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, joined the Tunisian Jews in the 16th and 17th centuries, thereby adding the Italian flavors and style of cooking to the existing cuisine.

A brief intrusion occurred in 1535, when the Spanish conquered Tunisia and ruled for about 40 years. They were fresh from their conquest of Mexico and Guatemala and it is logical that they may have brought the hot chili with them as well as other New World botanical discoveries, which profoundly influenced the cuisine. Hot chilies were incorporated into harissa, the ubiquitous spicy table condiment beloved by Tunisians.

The Turks conquered Tunisia from the Spanish in 1574 and introduced their celebrated pastries, which are the backbone of Tunisian sweets to this day.

No cuisine develops in isolation. The stage was now set for the assembly and evolution of a cuisine that included disparate but compatible ideas from the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, Portuguese, Turks, Italians, and finally the French, when they established a French Protectorate in 1881. Tunis, the capital city, became an important center of Jewish learning.

It was the French, with their genius for culinary adventures, who pulled all the components of the existing cooking styles together. The presentation of dishes was of special importance in developing a sophisticated culinary environment and the French stressed this facet of food preparation.

A worldwide dissemination of foodstuffs resulted in such imports as the tomato from the Valley of Mexico, turmeric from India, the artichoke from the Romans—all for the delectation of the 19th‑century Tunisians.

Tunisian Jewish cooking in the 20th century is based on religious dietary laws, married to the existing established style of cooking that the Jews found upon their arrival from Spain, the use of this wealth of ingredients, plus their own intrinsic ingenuity in inventing or modifying local foods. Cooking for the Sabbath resulted in the t’fina of many varieties—that exclusively Jewish pot‑au‑feu, which obviates the necessity of cooking on the Sabbath. Then there is the couscous, the national dish of Tunisia, which the Jewish cook glorifies with several modifications.

Personal preferences in dining are not due to political exhortations but are reflections of a culture, a way of life, sometimes based on one’s economic status. The Jewish cooking of Tunisia, as in other countries of the Maghreb, often makes something out of nothing or more frequently places an individual stamp on the country’s existing style of cooking.


Jews from Leghorn, Italy, arrived in Libya in the 17th century. They settled in Tripoli, the capital, and the Italian influence on the cuisine began.

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Copeland Marks has written numerous cookbooks, including The Great Book of Couscous and The Exotic Kitchens of Peru.