Across the world, the Mediterranean belt is popular for its lip smacking culinary specialities. While the Levant region is famed for falafel, hummus, babaghanoush and baklava, there are some regions along the Mediterranean coast that are totally unexplored.
The North African cuisine, especially the Tunisian is less known to the outside world. The Tunisian cuisine is a weave of diverse influences from the various civilisations that have ruled the region in the past. The Turkish, French, Spanish and Arabic are the dominant ones that have left a mark. The present Tunisian cuisine is an evolvement of these influences with the then local traditions.
Today’s recipe – ajlouk de courgettes or ajlouk qura’a, from the French Jewish community in Tunisia is a salad made from cooked zucchini that are mashed along with some wonderful Tunisian spice mix, harissa, red peppers, garlic and olive oil. It is traditionally served as an appetizer as a part of a kemia. Kemia is an assortment of hors d’oeuvres and is commonly referred to as the aperitif to the Tunisians. The kemia spread includes various roasted nuts, pickles, breads and salads.
In Tunisian cuisine, it is quite common to serve small-portioned salads at the beginning of a meal. A number of salads from the North African cuisine are not raw but rather cooked. Vegetables are boiled, steamed or grilled and then mashed or pureed; mixed with fragrant spices and herbs to get a chunky texture that closely resembles a salsa. It is also usually fiery and spicy.
A mashed vegetable salad is known as ajlouk in Judeo-Tunisian Arabic and the same is known as zaalouk in the Moroccan cuisine.
Another popular Tunisian salad variety that is similar to ajlouk, is slata mechouia, which means grilled salad. The only difference is that the vegetables are char grilled over open flame instead of boiling. Hence this is a popular summer recipe that mostly makes use of summer produces. A similar kind of dish known as bhartha is common in the Indian cuisine. Tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes, eggplants are grilled/boiled, mashed and seasoned with Indian spices. There, it is a main course and not a starter.
The original ajlouk was prepared only using eggplants. But in the present times, vegetables like carrots, pumpkin and particularly the summer green squash (known as qura in Arabic and courgettes in French) have become quite popular.
Ajlouk, sometimes used as a dip or a condiment or a relish, or as a salad, is rich and deep in flavors by itself. It is usually served along with bread, pickles and a good dose of olive oil.
The main seasonings for the Tunisian mashed zucchini dip are the harissa and tabil. Harissa, as most of us know is a spicy, hot, red pepper paste. It is Tunisia’s main condiment and is omnipresent in the Tunisian recipes.
Tabil (pronounced ta-bel) is a classical Tunisian spice mix. It is a fragrant blend of coriander, chili flakes and caraway seeds, which are sun-dried and ground into a fine powder. Tabil, loosely translated as “seasoning” in Tunisian Arabic, is used to spice veal, beef stew and dips.
This basic spice mix is often used in combination with the harissa paste in many Tunisian recipes, including gnaouia for example. To balance the bland taste of the boiled vegetables, seasoning is very important in ajlouk. The spices can be easily adjusted according to one’s taste preference. It is a simple and a breezy salad from the Mediterranean belt.
- 5 zucchini
- 1 small red bell pepper , cut in half and seeded
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- ½ teaspoon ground caraway
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon harissa
- 1 lemon
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- Peel the zucchini, by alternating stripes of unpeeled skin.
- Cut in half, place in a large saucepan and cover with salted boiling water.
- Cook covered for about 20 minutes over medium-high heat.
- Halfway through cooking, add 2 cloves of garlic, halved and the red bell pepper. You can also steam everything.
- Drain well in a colander to extract all the water.
- If needed, squeeze the zucchini lightly by hand to get rid of their water.
- Remove the skin of the red bell pepper.
- In a salad bowl, mash the zucchini, garlic and pepper with a fork or with the help of a potato masher.
- Squeeze the remaining garlic cloves and add them.
- Add lemon juice, salt, harissa, paprika, caraway, coriander and olive oil. Mix well and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Serve cold or at room temperature.