The Jewish Palate: The flavors of the 'Island of Dreams'

A column about Jewish history and Jewish food. This week: The Jews and Muslims of Djerba live side by side, giving their food an exotic twist and taste.

Tagine (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tradition claims that  Jews have lived  on the Island of Djerba since the fall of the Second Temple( 70 C.E). Another, more popular tradition argues that a Jewish Community has existed there ever since the the fall of the First Temple (in 586 B.C.E). Now, which ever tradition may hold true, the fact of the matter is that the exotic island  Djerba - off the coast of Tunisia - is home to one of the oldest Jewish Communities in the World. No small feat considering that it is located in the heart of Muslim North Africa.
But there is something very different about Djerba: Known to the the locals as the "Island of Dreams",  Jews and Muslims live side by side in relative peace, as they have done for centuries. The cultures meld to a point, but remain distinct. The communities have come to rely on one another. If it were not for the Muslim bakers, there would be no ovens for the Jews to utilize in the preparation of their weekly Sabbath Meals. If it were not for the Jews, there would be no source for fine gold jewelry, or the tourist income generated by the large yearly Lag b’Omer pilgrimage.
Food styles and traditions are also shared, only diverging when dietary laws and religious observances come into play. The local flavors and spices are as exotic as their music and manner of dress. The sweet fragrances of cinnamon, coriander, cumin, turmeric, rose petals, and chilies carried on the Mediterranean breeze mingle and dance upon the scent of roasting meats and sea foods in the local souks. Only to be enhanced by the smell of fresh backed goods rising from the local bakeries. The intoxication is subtle, but enlightening. There is balance here, and compromise.
Dishes are typically North African with that special Tunisian twist. Tunisian style tagines – almost frittata-like, couscous, spicy harissa, chick peas, flat breads, fish, and lamb form the backbone of the cuisine. Fresh Mediterranean fruits and vegetables abound. Many dishes are fried and then baked, a hallmark of true Tunisian cuisine.
The following recipe is Typical of the Jews of Djerba. It is for fish that is first fried and then baked with vegetables and a sauce. It would make a great fish course for your next Shabbat meal. Try it and introduce your family and friends to the exotic flavors of Djerba!
Fish Moukli
Serves 8
-8 tilapia filets, or other firm white fish filet, about 4 oz. each
-2 green bell peppers, cut into strips
-3 pounds tomatoes
-1 pound zucchini or yellow squash
-3 pounds white potatoes
-1 onion
-1 head of garlic
-1 quart olive oil for deep frying (not extra virgin)
-½ cup extra virgin olive oil, for garnishing
-2 tablespoons harissa, or to taste – recipe follows
-1 teaspoon curry powder
-1 teaspoon coriander, ground
-½ teaspoon cumin, ground
-½ teaspoon dried thyme
-Kosher salt to taste
-8 large eggs, optional
-Lemon wedges for garnish
Combine the curry powder, coriander, cumin, and thyme. Set aside.
Roughly dice half of the tomatoes. Finely dice the onion, and chop the entire head of garlic. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot. Add the onion and garlic and sweat until they turn translucent. Add the tomatoes and harissa, and cook down until thick. Be very careful not to scorch the tomatoes. Season the tomato coulis with salt and set aside.
While tomatoes are reducing, slice the potatoes and squash into rounds about ¼ inch thick. Cut the remaining tomatoes in half. Season all of the vegetables with salt and the spice mixture. Set aside.
Season the fish filets with salt and the spice mixture to taste. Set aside.
Heat 1 quart of olive oil to 375 degrees in a medium, heavy bottomed pot. When oil is hot, dredge the fish filets in flour, patting off any excess. Fry until golden brown. Remove from oil, and drain on paper toweling. Sprinkle with additional salt and spices.
After fish is cooked, dredge remaining vegetables in flour, patting off the excess. Fry vegetables, a few at a time, until golden. The tomatoes probably won’t brown much. Remove from oil, and drain on paper toweling. Sprinkle additional salt and spices on hot vegetables.
Place the tomato coulis on an oven proof platter. Arrange the fish and the vegetables on the sauce. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and bake in a 325 degree oven for 15 minutes. At this point the dish can be covered and held for Shabbat.
While dish is baking prepare optional garnish:
Bring pot of olive oil back to 375 degrees and carefully deep fry eggs 1 at a time. To do this, crack an egg into a small bowl and gently allow it to slide into the hot oil. It will cook very quickly. Do not overcook, the yolk should still be runny. Drain on paper toweling.
To serve:
Remove dish from the oven and garnish with the fried eggs and lemon wedges.