Chef Mounir Arem is the Tunisian culinary expert on 196 flavors.
Mounir Arem grew up with the flavors of his mom’s cooking. This mathematician by education eventually returned to his first love, as he took over the family business and invested in his passion: the art of cooking and entertaining.
He was trained by Mohamed Boujelbène in Tunisia, professor at the High Institute of Hospitality Studies and Jean Jacques Jouteux, award-winning French chef.
Fond of learning and discovering, he multiplies internships and trainings. He launches his project of culinary space and receives the recognition of his Tunisian peers as a chef. He manages a team of 75 staff, at his restaurant Le Baroque, in a chic neighborhood of the Tunisian capital.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
I come from the city of Sfax. This city, which is dear to my heart, is the gate to southern Tunisia, with its olive trees as far as the eye can see. The local cuisine to which I am deeply attached, has always inspired me and gives me the desire to create new combinations of flavors.
My passion for Culinary Art led me to be named President of the French National Academy of Cuisine, Tunisian Delegation. I am also a founding member of the Tunisian Association of Culinary Arts, also General Coordinator of the Tunisian Federation of Culinary Arts, and a member of several other associations.
Tell us more about your knowledge and experience when it comes to Tunisian cuisine
I started my cooking training in 1998. My teacher, Mr. Mohamed Boujelbene, was the first to introduce me to the culinary arts. In 2000, I continued with Jean-Jacques Jouteux, the award-winning French chef, and followed many other trainings including Bellouet Conseil and Med Diet, to only name a few.
In 2001, I founded my first fast food company “Moka Café”. In 2008, I took over the management of the family restaurant, and transformed it into a prestigious restaurant: “Le Baroque”. This baroque period, crazy, full of decorations, artistic exaggerations and epicureans inspires me, defines me and can be found in the dishes that I prepare with passion for my guests. As the Executive chef, I transform the local cuisine to tastes and flavors that I discovered as a kid, by bringing my personal touch. I like to pass on my knowledge to young cooking enthusiasts. The companionship that I love is a beautiful way to perpetuate the tradition and the secrets of local cuisine.
I am very attached to my Tunisian flag and I want Tunisian cuisine, a cuisine which is rather unknown internationally, to emerge and radiate. I had the pleasure and the honor of being part of the staff of the Tunisian team who won the title of World Champion of Couscous in San Vito Lo Capo twice, as well as the African Cup of baking in Casablanca. Our cuisine tells the story of the mix of cultures that Tunisia has known with the Berbers, the Arabs, the Ottomans and the arrival of Italians, Maltese, Turks, French and many other nations.
What makes Tunisian cuisine unique? What sets it apart from other North African cuisines?
First, Tunisian cuisine is made with sun-filled products, that are full of vitamins and colors: tomatoes, green and red peppers, garlic and other zucchini, aubergines, artichokes… As a Mediterranean country, seafood is plentiful. Meat, especially, lamb is of high quality as well.
It is interesting to look at the history of our country. It is a great and ancient civilization. In 8000 before our era, the Capsiens (inhabitants of today’s Gafsa), were already fond of snails. Then come the dairy products, the seeds, the roasted flours and the soups.
With the great Carthaginian civilization came the bread, the cultivation of herbs, the development of the oil with its derivatives and great benefits.
Couscous, of Berber origin is known in the southern Mediterranean and you can fin several variations in all the Tunisian regions. Chili peppers and harissa became known with the arrival of Andalusians in Tunisia in 1535.
With the Ottoman Empire came briks and dried fruits at first.
Influenced by all these civilizations, mixtures of cultures, culinary habits and traditions, the Tunisians have been enriched by a taste, olfactory, visual and intellectual heritage, representing the diversity of Tunisian gastronomy.
As you can see, it is this diverse culture that has shaped our cuisine. Ideally exposed to the invasions of civilizations, Tunisia has inherited the habits and customs of the conquerors, which make the difference between our country and the other countries of the Maghreb.
What is your favorite Tunisian recipe or the most unusual dish in the country?
My favorite recipe is the fish soup from Sfax with barley bread. Barley flour originally from North Africa and Asia is the oldest flour used in bread making. Sfax is a port city known for its olive growing and abundant fishing. Different from the French bouillabaisse, our fish soup is made up of annular seabream (sparaillon), striped seabream (marbré), scorpionfish, and other small fish.
It is a very popular dish in our region. It’s almost part of our everyday life. This fish soup that we call market hout is flavored with spices and red hot peppers, and seasoned with paprika and cumin.
The national and popular dish you’ll find in every street corner, nutritious and inexpensive, is lablabi, a chickpea soup. At the time, this dish was just boiling water, chickpeas and stale bread. Over time, this has evolved and has been enhanced with eggs, harissa, tuna, capers, olives and preserved lemon, sometimes offal replaces tuna. This dish has even been revisited twice by the great French Chef Alain Ducasse. Quite unusual, no?
What other cuisines do you like or influence your cuisine?
Apart from my mother’s cooking, I love all the Mediterranean cuisines, which have the common denominator of Mediterranean fruits, olive oil and citrus fruits. Francophone, Francophile and Cartesian, I naturally took inspiration from the codification of French gastronomy. France is the only country in the world to have codified the its cuisine.
What places would you recommend during a visit to Tunisia?
You have the North, with mountains and forests overlooking the sea, where you can taste fresh lobster from Tarbarka or Thibar lamb.
In the mountainous lands, you can consume a ftet from Béja or a couscous borzguen from Kef.
Bizerte, with Cap Blanc, which is the northernmost point of Africa. You can get lost in its ancient city, where you will taste a tlitlou.
On the East Coast, in Cap Bon, off the beaches, you will find all the secrets of harissa, and its variations.
In the South, the desert, you will find a lot of history, with its dunes, its caravels and the grandiose spaces of the oases intersecting the Sahara. You will discover legumes and dried meats in dishes such as barkoukech or karabize, aBerber specialty.
Which Tunisian chef is a reference for you? What are the main difficulties of Tunisian cuisine?
I am particularly fond of Madame Zeineb Kaak, who was the pioneer in writing and putting the secrets of Tunisian cuisine on the map at a national level and beyond, in 1982. As well as all my elders who helped to make Tunisian gastronomy known.
Tunisian cuisine is not difficult in itself. However, it would be appropriate to gather the skills and expertise of professionals, artisans of Tunisia to inventory, classify, notify, codify our culinary heritage.
Unfortunately, our gastronomic heritage has seen gaps in the transmission of the know-how, as it is an instinctive and multicultural cuisine that is not yet codified. As a result, this cuisine does not have all the notoriety it deserves internationally.
What would you suggest if you had to prepare a Tunisian menu: starter, main course, dessert?
An assortment of small Tunisian salads called kamia:
– A potato salad with cumin,
– Crushed carrots with garlic called ommok houria,
– A Tunisian salad consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, tuna and parsley, simply seasoned with lemon juice and olive oil,
– Small fried red mullets,
– Grilled sardines,
– Red mullet, just grilled on fire, seasoned with Sfax spices, a small timbale of couscous sprinkled with taklya tomato sauce, and a duo of preserved fried hot peppers.
– Mint tea accompanied by an aniseed sorghum dessert.
I would add that this menu would not be complete without our selection of sweet white wine, Muscat Kelibia or a red wine Mornag, that would pair well with the kemia.
Followed by a dry white wine from the region of Testour for the main course.
As a digestive, you will have the choice between a liqueur of medicinal plants, the Thibarine created by the Pères Blancs or the famous fig brandy, boukha which will be served with a sliver of boutargue (which is none other than a preparation of dried mullet eggs).