Nikitouches! One of the most delicious recipes of Tunisian Jewish cuisine, a true grandmother’s recipe!
Those recipes are all simple, old-fashioned recipes that remind us of our grandmothers who, with skillful hands, prepared these dishes that seemed unparalleled. For some of you, this nikitouches recipe will certainly be reminiscent of childhood memories.
When we talk about Jewish cooking, most of us immediately think of the rules that characterize it. Jewish cuisine is a very old and rich culinary tradition. And this, regardless of its origin or nationality.
The Jewish people have always been a wandering people: the Roman persecutions, the Jews of Spain under the successive domination of the Muslim and Christian kingdoms, the diaspora, the return to Israel after 1948 … The Jews scattered all over the world, bringing with them their own rules and traditions but also under the influence of the various countries or regions where they settled.
Over time, Jewish cuisine, or rather Jewish cuisines have become a perfect blend of the most diverse and far-flung culinary traditions, while keeping all their rules intact. Tunisian Jewish cuisine is probably one of the most varied.
What are nikitouches?
Nikitouches are small round pasta made from fine semolina, oil and egg yolk. You can make them at home or, like me, buy them pre-made at the market, and they are just as good.
Because yes, it takes a lot of patience and time (a lot of time) to roll tiny pasta balls between your thumb and forefinger. 4 hours ? 5 hours maybe ? And all of this for a meal that will feed just 10 people!
Then there is the drying stage. Try to space out a large number of tiny balls of dough so they do not stick to each other. Good luck!
In Tunisia, they were also called baballes. Do you know how women in Tunis used to make nikitouches? They went out with their friends, carrying a small bag and went to the famous movie theater called “The Palmarium” which offered permanent showings. They watched their movie while rolling their tiny pasta balls. When they were done, they would go back to their home with the nikitouches ready to be semi-dried for their Shabbat lunch.
I do not know if my grandmother used to go watch her movie to prepare nikitouches when she lived in Tunisia. All I know is that I remember vividly helping her more than once to prepare these tiny pasta when I was a kid in Paris. I remember it as well as when I was helping her shell peas or fava beans for the traditional Passover msoki.
Nikitouches are cooked in a chicken broth with onion, celery and turmeric. You can also prepare what is called a dabahaya: a mixture of eggs, shredded chicken and oil that is simmered in a bain-marie. Then pieces of this dabahaya are steeped in the broth with the nikitouches.
The nikitouches are often served over of couscous. The purists will accompany them with a cucumber and lemon salad or a makbouba (cooked salad with peppers and tomatoes).
Chicken broth is the ultimate comfort food. Its aroma is always associated with the thought of a mother or grandmother making the broth in their kitchen.
Chicken broth, especially in the winter, is a real medicine. It has an anti-inflammatory effect with many virtues for the respiratory tract.
The mothers know it, and the grandmothers knew it before: when you get a cold, there is nothing like a chicken broth! And when you’re a Jewish mother, well …
In Jewish families, broth is one of the most consumed foods. In fact, Jewish mothers think that chicken soup is the perfect remedy for every sickness, hence the American habit of naming chicken broth “Jewish penicillin”.
You can’t have more than a little sneeze without being immediately presented with a bowl of hot chicken broth! Jewish actors have always made fun of their mother, who is always represented in the kitchen preparing food and often making the famous chicken broth, to take care of the family.
The benefits of chicken broth have been known for many centuries. Already, famous Egyptian doctor Moshe Ben Maimon (called Maimonides) prescribed it to his patients in the twelfth century.
And in 2017, researcher Stephen Rennard, a professor in the Pulmonary Medicine department at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, did not just scientifically prove the benefits of chicken broth, but he also studied the perfect recipe, with anti-inflammatory and decongestant effects.
The Rennard version includes 2 lb of chicken wings, 3 onions, 1 large sweet potato, 3 parsnips, 2 turnips, 12 carrots, 6 celery stalks, 1 bunch of parsley, salt and pepper. And its health benefits have been confirmed by a blood test: the nutrients present in this broth increased the presence of neutrophilic antibodies, thus conferring a greater susceptibility to healing.
Indeed, it appears that the reduction of neutrophils in the blood is directly proportional to the reduction of defensive barriers of the respiratory tract, thus exposing us more to acute rhinitis or influenza.
The broth of our nikkitouches is certainly not the Rennard version but it is still an excellent grandmother’s remedy!
Little pasta around the world
In Israel, there is a variety of pasta that is close to nikkitouches. It is called ptitim (Hebrew: פתיתים, literally “flakes”). It is a type of pasta that is presented in the form of grains of rice or small balls that was developed in Israel in the 1950s, when rice was rare.
Outside Israel, it is generally marketed as “Israeli couscous”, “Jerusalem couscous”, or “pearl couscous”. In Israel, it is also known as “Ben-Gurion rice” (Hebrew: אורז בן-גוריון, Órez Ben-Gurion), although it is mainly called “ptitim” nowadays. It is almost identical to Levantine and North African pearl couscous, known as maftoul or moghrabieh in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and North Africa.
Small pasta similar to ptitim are also known throughout the Mediterranean region. Most of us know about orzo, these short pasta that have the shape of a large grain of rice. Although orzo is native to Italy, it is known in Greece as κριθαράκι (kritharáki, “small barley”), in Turkey as arpa şehriye (“barley noodle”), as well as in Arab countries where it is called لسان العصفور (lisān al-`uṣfūr, “bird tongue”). In Spain, these small pasta are called piñones.
I had the chance to visit Paris a few months ago and I brought back a bag of nikitouches. So I did not have to make pasta, which is something that very few people do nowadays. If you do not live in Paris, then you can use ptitim, orzo or other very small pasta, ideally eggs-based.
I’m not usually a fan of chicken broth, and even though I’ve eaten nikitouches a lot as a kid, I have never loved it, preferring pkaila or couscous. This time, I do not know if it was the nostalgia or the fact that I really aced this dish of my ancestors, but I just loved it. And the nikitouches were a resounding success with the whole family who was tasting this dish for the first time!
- 8 oz. nikitouches (small round dried pasta)
- 6 pieces chicken (with bone)
- 2 stalks celery
- 1 onion , finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 zucchini (optional)
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Couscous (cooked)
- 6 oz. chicken breast
- 4 eggs , beaten
- 2 hard-boiled eggs , thinly cut
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Cut the celery stalks in half lengthwise and into 1-inch sections.
- (Optional) Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and then into 2-inch sections.
- In a pot over medium heat, add the oil and fry the onion for 2 minutes.
- Add the chicken, stir and fry for another 2 minutes.
- Add the celery, and turmeric.
- Cover with water, stir and cook covered on low to medium heat for 30 minutes.
- Add the nikitouches and zucchini and continue cooking for another 15 to 20 minutes.
- Serve the broth by itself, or over couscous, with a piece of dabahaya on the side.
- Cook the chicken breast in the nikitouches broth for about 20 minutes.
- Shred the chicken breast, and mix with the beaten eggs and hard-boiled eggs. Season with salt and pepper.
- In a large pan over medium heat, add about 2 inches of water.
- Add 2 tablespoons of neutral oil to a bowl and rotate to ensure that it is well greased.
- Pour the egg and chicken mixture into the bowl, and place the bowl in the pan.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer in a bain-marie for 20 minutes.
- Cover the bowl with a plate and continue cooking over low heat for at least 30 minutes.
- Finish the cooking of the whole dabahaya in the chicken broth for about 10 minutes.