It’s Ramadan, which means life in Tunis is very quiet during the day, and vibrant by night. As a non-Muslim expat, life during Ramadan takes on a slower pace of life. When I first started living in Muslim majority countries, I found Ramadan a bit—well, boring. Because observers fast from sunrise to sunset, most restaurants and cafes are closed during the day for the entire month. The city springs to life at night, taking on a celebratory spirit, but since I’m not fasting and I’ve never been a night owl, once 11pm comes around, I’m in my pj’s with a cup of tea winding down for bed.
Over time, I’ve learned to appreciate the sleepy spirit that dominates daytime during Ramadan. Plus, iftar, the evening meal which breaks the day’s fast and brings the city to life, is a special treat. Most families enjoy iftar at home with delicious home-cooked dishes. Even so, many restaurants in Tunis offer special iftar menus and I wanted to share some tips for enjoying iftar at some of my favorite restaurants.
Tips for Expats Experiencing Iftar
- Plan to fast for a few hours before iftar. Even though I don’t observe Ramadan, iftar usually is a feast that includes several courses. I recommend skipping lunch or having a very light lunch since iftar will be heavy on the stomach.
- Women, dress modestly. We’ve had some very hot days during Ramadan this year and it can be tempting to put on a flow-y sundress before stepping out to dinner. That said, out of respect, I recommend dressing modestly by keeping shoulders covered and wearing nothing shorter than knee-length bottoms for iftar.
- Make a reservation. Because most families enjoy iftar at home, restaurants offering iftar are limited and popular. Call ahead to make a reservation. Calling the day of will usually suffice, but on weekends or with larger groups, I recommend calling several days in advance.
- Be on time. Tunisians tend to run fashionably late. When I teach courses at the local universities, it’s not unusual for students to arrive 10 or 15 minutes late. At Tunisian weddings, the bride and groom may night arrive until an hour (or two!) after the stated reception time. But when it comes to iftar, diners are seated and ready for the meal ahead of time. Plan to arrive 10 minutes before iftar is served.
- Wait patiently for sunset and the start of the meal. Most restaurants will have the table set with dates, juice or yogurt, and water when you arrive. If you are a non-Muslim, it’s easy (and tempting) to grab a sip of water right away when you are seated. While other diners will likely appreciate that you are not observing the fast, the etiquette at iftar is to wait until sunset alongside the other diners before taking even a sip of water. How do you know when to start? Easy, just keep an eye on the others.
- Start with the date. The fast is traditionally broken with a date and some milk, juice, or other beverage. Personally, I don’t love starting my meal with something as sweet as a date, but since I’m being welcomed to participate in this ritual, I politely observe the tradition and start the meal with a date (plus, the dates they serve during Ramadan are delicious, and I’m convinced that they are better than the ones available other times of the year).
- No alcohol. Even restaurants that traditionally serve alcohol will not serve alcohol during Ramadan.
Where to Go for Iftar in Tunis
Ok, so now that we’ve got the basics down for iftar etiquette, where should you go? I’ve got a few favorites in Tunis to share with you over the next couple of posts, but I’ll start with Essaraya.
Essaraya is “easy” to find because there is a neon green sign at the closest entrance to the Medina for Essaraya. As you enter the Medina at this entrance, the restaurant sends a guide to greet its guests and to escort diners through the narrow, winding streets of the Medina toward the restaurant. As long as you are looking “lost” enough, the guide will find you and walk you to the unassuming door to Essaraya.
Upon entering the restaurant, the spacious dining room, with high ceilings and elaborate Tunisian design, welcomes you in. The restaurant is broken up into several smaller dining rooms, each one with their own charm. I fell in love with the small wooden doorways that lead from one section of the dining room to another.
We started our meal with a simple date and some water. Our waiter came by to ask whether we’d like to have a vegetarian h’lalem or a soupe frik with chicken. We ordered one of each. Both soups are tomato based and have a very similar flavor bearing resemblance to Moroccan harrira.
Soup was followed by a tuna brik (pronounced “breek”, a dish that is as Tunisian as it comes). Brik is a Tunisian pastry pocket made from a phyllo-like dough that is traditionally filled with an egg, canned tuna, onion, parsley, and harissa. The egg is broken on top of the filling before the phyllo-esque dough is shaped into a triangle. The pocket is deep fried, cooking the egg as it fries in the hot oil. I prefer a brik with a runny yolk because the yolk breaks with the first bite, doubling as a creamy sauce for the filling. The brik at Essaraya was delightfully, crispy, but not too oily. Brik is often served with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
After the brik, we were each served with a platter of Tunisian salads and a small piece of Tunisian tagine. Unlike Moroccan tagines which are hearty stews, Tunisian tagines resemble a frittata or quiche.
For our main course, we had a choice of grilled daurade or lamb shoulder. We ordered one of each, and both where delicious. I would’ve preferred the fish without the sauce, but the sauce was light and lemony, and not overwhelming. The lamb was fall off the bone tender and served with a few roasted vegetables (we gobbled the lamb up before I snapped a photo!).
After our main course, we were given a short break to digest our food. Many guests walked around the restaurant to enjoy the beauty of the dining rooms and climbed to the second floor to get a view of the dining area from above.
Dessert was a generous platter of fresh fruits including apricots, white peaches, and melon. We also had two custard desserts, one flavored with orange flower water and the other was Assida Zgougou. This is made from ground pine seeds (NOT pine nuts, these are actual seeds from the pine cone)! Assida zgougou is a traditional Tunisian dessert and until we moved to Tunisia, I’d never tasted anything like it. The texture is creamy like a custard or American pudding, but it has an earthy flavor. To me, it tastes like a marriage between black sesame and a Christmas tree. I can’t say it’s my favorite, but I also never resist the unique flavor on the few occasions I’ve had the opportunity to taste it.
After our feast, we strolled through the Medina and headed home. I’ll admit, I washed down that meal with a night cap of cognac on our balcony to help me digest all of that food! Stay tuned for my next post on Iftar at El Ali in the Tunis medina!
Rue Ben Mahmoud -Beb Mnara
Tunis, Tunisia 1008
Map & Directions: https://her.is/2rkn0LT
For reservations call:
(+216) 96 300 000
(+216) 71 560 310
(+216) 71 563 091