Tunisia's Pungent Secret

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Unless you're Tunisian or have spent much time with Tunisian food, you've probably never heard of zdir. But it's one more of the many really great dishes I tasted and learned to cook last winter when I went to Tunis to visit Majid Mahjoub and the Moulins Mahjoub. The trip has definitely influenced my eating; we've been bringing in and selling ever growing numbers of their products (just got samples of three new ones—all excellent, and details to come).

Anyways, on to the zdir. Given the current lower than low temperatures, this is the perfect time to be making a great soup like this one. The quickest way I think I'm going to get this one across is that zdir could be to Tunisians sort of what really good homemade cream of tomato soup is here. Except in this case, it's Tunisian so ... it's not just tomatoes. And oh yeah, for the dairy-free amongst you, there's no cream. There's also no meat. It does use semolina, so if you have a wheat allergy this one's out (though, that said, you could certainly sub in rice flour and it would be great anyways). The main thing is that it's easy to make, and, I think, very delicious.

Add a bit of dried chopped mint, mix, and serve. (Majid insists that dried is better than fresh for the zdir.)

Zdir grows ever dearer to me the more I make it. Whether you're up for soup for dinner or soup for soup's sake, it's worth making. As with pretty much everything I say or write about food, the quality of the dish depends a lot on the quality of what you put in it. Fortunately we have the benefit of working with Majid Mahjoub's marvelous stuff, so if you stick to that, you're covered for sure.

Basically, it goes like this.

Put a few dried red chiles into a bit of warm water to soak. I used Guajillos, but New Mexico red chiles would be good too.

Put an ounce or so of olive oil in a soup pot and put the burner on low. The obvious oil of choice would be the Mahjoub's. Add some of the Mahjoub's sun-dried garlic. (It is pretty amazing. If you're a garlic lover and haven't tried this stuff yet, do it!) Also add some crushed fresh garlic. The flavors are different, so you'll want both. You can increase or decrease the garlic to your taste, but in Tunisia they use about a teaspoon of each. Heat it gently in the oil.

Before the garlic really cooks much, add a few spoonfuls of the Mahjoub's sun-dried harissa and also of regular "sweet" harissa. Again, adjust the amount depending on your heat preferences. Add about a quarter cup of tomato puree and a couple of spoonfuls of tomato paste if you like. Add a touch of water so you can mix it into a bit of a smooth soft paste. Turn up the heat a bit and simmer for about five minutes.

Add about a quart of water. Chop the soaked dried chiles and add those too. Add a teaspoon or two to taste of ground caraway and of ground, dried coriander (not fresh coriander leaf). (Actually the recipe calls for tabil, a slightly mysterious Tunisian spice blend the dominant component of which is coriander. I hope that we'll have tabil from the Mahjoubs sometime in the next year.) Blend the whole thing well, then bring it back to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Cut up one of the Mahjoub's preserved lemons into smallish pieces and put it in a small bowl along with a spoonful of capers. If you have a bit of pickled vegetables or chiles you can add some of those too. (The chiles in the Mahjoub's preserved lemon jar work well for sure.) Add a bit of water and soak for a few minutes. Drain it off and add the mixture to the soup.

Simmer the soup for another five minutes or so. I like to add a bit of the liquid from the preserved lemon jar. Pit about a dozen olives and chop the meat. I used the Meski olives we get from Mahjoub's, which are very meaty and very good. Dice up four of the Mahjoub's sun dried tomatoes and add those too.

Taste the soup for flavor and texture. If it's too thick for you, you can add a bit more water. It's going to get thicker in a minute ... gradually stir in four ounces or so of ground semolina. (I got a bit from the Bakehouse, since we use it for the Sicilian sesame semolina bread.) Stir well so the semolina is blended in. Basically it will thicken the soup and lighten it slightly in color, but you'd actually likely never guess it was in there if I weren't already telling you. Lastly add a bit of dried chopped mint, mix, and serve. (Majid insists that dried is better than fresh for the zdir.) Again, you can adjust heat (with more harissa) and thickness (with water) as you like.

When I serve the zdir, I like to run a ring of olive oil around the top of the soup in the bowl. Aside from the fact that it tastes good, if you do it in a circle it looks like the Mahjoub's logo. Also you can top it with a bit of additional chopped sun-dried tomato or preserved lemon to make it pretty.

Like all soups of this sort, I think zdir is actually better the day after it's made, after it's been cooled and reheated. Like I said, zdir has all the comfort of tomato soup, but instead of the straightforward, homey flavors of American cream of tomato soup, zdir is complex, spicy, aromatic, with a touch of sourness from the preserved lemon and exoticism from the coriander and caraway (which Tunisians surprisingly make frequent use of). The olives, lemon rind, and capers actually make for a rather meaty texture, yet like so many Tunisian dishes it's meatless. And with all that olive oil in it, it's good for you. A little toasted semolina bread and a salad on the side will make for a great meal any time this winter.

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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
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