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D - 51: How Climate Changed Tunisia's Cuisine

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

After yesterday’s foray to the Green Sahara, it is time to return to Berber Culture and the Tunisian Cuisine. We will return to the Sahara in my next blogs when I talk about the Salt – Gold trade that funded mighty Muslim kingdoms in North Africa and Spain. Remember that Europe had very little gold and needed to procure it from Africa.

We met the Berber tribes yesterday when they moved into the Atlas Mountains to escape the drought that turned the once lush Sahara into a barren desert. The change was slow and spanned several generations but was irreversible. The Berber’s semi-nomadic lifestyle made this adaptation possible. Every time an area became too arid, they moved a further north. The general assumption is that they settled in the Atlas Mountains around 3’000 BC. A few tribes of the Berber family, the Tuareg, actually stayed in the Sahara and settled around the few remaining oases or along the Niger river.

Berber town in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco

The Berber culture is tribe or clan based which are usually headed by a man but there are a few women chiefs as well. Whilst conservative, the Berber society respects that it takes the contribution of both genders to survive as a community. Men look after the livestock and follow their grazing herds. Women look after domestic affairs, the family and produce handicrafts for sale in the local markets. When they settle, they built fortress like villages which are easy to defend and keep the heat out. Berber are masters in water-preservation. Their irrigation systems around their villages are state of the art – a visit to Berber villages in the Moroccan Atlas is highly recommended. Green valleys in the middle of barren rocks!

Berber women wearing their dowry (silver jewelry)

Berbers never integrated into the culture of the Phoenicians after they arrived on their shores around 900 BC. Until the 5th century BC, the Berber with their strong cavalry had the upper hand. But as we have seen in blog D-56, over time, the Phoenician trading stations became permanent settlements. The sophistication of the Punic society started to turn the table. Cavalry was no match against well-organized armies. In a society where the Phoenicians from Carthage organized agricultural production and long-distance trade, the Berber lost out. They were not treated as economic equals but as underclass which was hired for labor or as mercenaries. The Numidian states became vassals to Carthage.

Berber Kingdoms in Numidia around 220 BC

Carthage paid a high price for this policy. During the Punic wars, the Berber King Masinissa switch his alliance to Rome and was richly rewarded when Carthage was defeated. Numidia became a client state of Rome. Its agile and powerful cavalry fought side by side with Roman Legions on many occasions. But as under the Phoenicians, the Berber kept their semi-nomadic identity and did not adopt the Roman culture. Very different from the Gaules in France or the Celtic tribes in Spain which were fully Romanized. The Berber respected Rome’s military might but when it was absent, plundering undefended cities like Leptis Magna was never far off their mind.

It turned out that in the long run the Berber lifestyle was superior. When the Roman Climatic Optimum came to an end sometime around 250 AD, the semi-nomadic Berber culture could adapt whilst the agriculture based Roman colonies had to be abandoned. Nobody askes the question how a few thousand Arab riders could conquer all the Roman provinces in North Africa in 670 AD. Well, there was nobody around anymore. The Roman towns were in decay with no Legions to defend them.

Initially, the relationship between Arabs and Berber was as unequal as under Roman rule. But Berber tribes provided the soldiers for Spain’s invasion in 711 AD which turned the relationship – the power of the sword! Berbers became the rulers, they made peace with the Arabs and slowly converted to Islam. Or state it differently: Berbers controlled the gold trade with Africa and with it the finances of Islam. Call it a reverse take-over!

The Almohad Empire, a Berber State, 1121 – 1269 AD. It would clash in the 11th century with Pisa and Genoa for the control of the Western Mediterranean, Corsica and Sardinia.

Hope I lost nobody in this long detour to explain how the Berber Cuisine became the Cuisine of Tunisia. It was better suited to the climate – and the Berbers ruled.

As it is to be expected for a nomadic cuisine which is continuously on the move, they use fewer pots than we do. Stews, soups and single-pot dishes thus dominate. Popular dishes are Couscous with vegetables and chickpeas, Lablabi – chickpea sautéed in a arlic broth, Merguez – the spicy red lamb sausage, Shakshouka – the tomato and pepper stew with poached egg and their flat soft bread.

Lablabi, a chickpea dish in a garlic broth served over crusty bread

Couscous – semolina made from hard durum wheat (as the Sardine Pasta) steamed over a broth made with meat and vegetables

Shashouka – a tomato and pepper stew with poached eggs. Peppers and tomatoes came to Tunisia with the Spanish when they conquered Tunis in 1535

Could continue with many more dishes but promised to keep the blog at a thousand words per piece. In 1973, I missed all of that. Luckily, Ahmed and Naima occasionally invite for dinner and serve Berber delicacies. History is always full of surprises. How a semi-nomadic cuisine made it to the shores of the Mediterranean is a story to tell.

Tomorrow we are going to talk about the Saharan Salt – Gold exchange which made the Berber rich and Genoa eager to trade.

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