Fish dishes are very popular in Tunisian cuisine and there is a perfect geographic explanation to this fact: Tunisia is located in North Africa and has access to the Mediterranean Sea from its northeastern side. My family lived in Bizerte (Bizerta) the northernmost city of Tunisia (and Africa!). A wealthy family of merchants; their house was just a short walk to the sea. My Savta (grandma) told us that as a child she used to walk to the sea early in the morning to see the fishermen of Bizerte at work. They would give her some fresh sardines, which she put in her dress to hold on the way home. 🙂 At home her mother would fry them for breakfast.
Bizerte is a very ancient port city and its perfect location with access to the sea made it popular and desirable throughout history. Bizerte’s unique location and history has a notable influence on some of its signature dishes and foods. Besides local Tunisian flavors, you may find, for example, the use of similar ingredients and resemblances to Italian cuisine, Sicily and Sardinia in particular and even French influenced dishes and cooking techniques.
In November 1942, during the Second World War, the German army invaded Bizerte. German ships entered Bizerte port and Nazi soldiers where on the lookout for Jewish families. My family was forced to leave their homes and belongings. The Germans gathered all of the Jewish families in one old building first in Ferryville, a town close to Tunis the capital city of Tunisia. Becoming refugees in an instant and living under constant threats made life difficult for the family. My Savta just had her first baby and she used to escape with the baby to the building’s roof often to keep him calm and care for him. My Saba (grandpa) was forced to work for the Germans in a cement factory. The awful working conditions quickly took a toll on his lungs and he had difficulties breathing. One day my Savta came to beg the Nazi officers to release him from the work, but they refused. He later managed to escape from the factory work.
After the German army was defeated in May 1943, the family tried to go back to their homes, but found their homes in dreadful conditions and that most of their belongings were either destroyed or confiscated. The family continued to live in Tunis a few more years until they decided to move to Israel.
As a child most of the stories I heard of Tunisia and Bizerte were stories of beauty and happiness. My Savta never told me the stories of hardship that the city and the family have been though, it was only later as a young adult when I asked questions and discovered more stories and details of our family. I believe my Savta wanted to keep Bizerte as a beautiful memory of a sea view and a happy life, a magical place where merchants and food met to share new ingredients and cultures.
“Hoot Mukli” is a traditional Tunisian dish of fried fish. It is usually made using a whole fish, but I like using fish fillets instead. I serve this dish with a warm cooked tapenade of classic Tunisian flavors. Flavors of lemons, capers, garlic, olives and Harissa that are naturally complimentary flavors to fish…
You will need:
4-6 Fish fillets (Tilapia, Trout, Flounder/Sole, Seabass, Mullet)
Lemon Juice (Freshly squeeze)
⅔ cup Semolina Flour
Lemon Zest of one Lemon (about 2 tsp.)
1 tsp. Salt
For the Tapenade:
2 tbsp. Olive Oil
3-4 Garlic cloves
1 cup Olives (Mix of your choice)
1 tbsp. Capers
1 pint (about 1-2 cup) Cherry Tomatoes
1 tbsp. Preserved Lemons (finely chopped)
1 tbsp. Harissa (or chopped Red Hot Pepper)
2 tsp. Lemon juice fresh (the juice of ½ lemon)
½ tsp. Cumin
¼ tsp. Black Pepper
Let’s get to work!
The fried fish part is simple. This time I used Flounder fish filets, but you may use any white mild fish for this dish,Tilapia, Trout, Flounder/Sole, Seabass, Mullet- they all work.
First, I like to squeeze fresh lemon juice on the fish filets. Besides brightening up the fish flavor, the lemon juice wets the filets just enough to catch on to the coating.
To create a thin crispy and tasty coating to the fish, I combine semolina flour, lemon zest and salt.
Mix it well and coat each fish portion.
Fry in olive oil on a wide flat pan. I like to use my griddle for extra wide filets.
Fry on medium heat on one side and then flip to the other side to fry as well. The frying time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish portions.
The goal is to achieve a golden and crispy coating on both sides. When fish filets are fried and ready, set them aside.
For the tapenade, finely chop the garlic and sauté in olive oil on low heat. This will take a couple of minutes. Be careful not to burn the garlic!
Chop the olives and add to the pan.
Next, chop preserved lemons and add it together with the capers.
Add Harissa and let the ingredients sauté together on medium-low heat for about five minutes.
Add cumin and black pepper.
Chop the cherry tomatoes.
Raise the heat to medium and add the chopped tomatoes to the pan.
Cook for 6-7 minutes and mix constantly until all the ingredients come together and most of the cherry tomatoes’ liquid evaporates.
The tapenade is ready!
Serve warm along with the fried fish.
Hoot Mukli Tunisian Fried Fish-
Squeeze Lemon Juice onto Fish portions.
Mix Semolina, Lemon Zest and Salt to a unified mixture.
Coat the Fish in Semolina mixture.
Fry Fish portions in Olive Oil on both sides.
Removed fried fish and set aside.
Mince Garlic Cloves.
Sauté minced Garlic in Olive oil on low-medium heat for about a minute.
Finely chop Olives, Cherry Tomatoes and Preserved Lemons.
Add Chopped Olives, Capers and chopped Cherry Tomatoes to the pan.
Cook on medium heat for 5-7 minutes.
Add Preserved Lemon, Harissa, Cumin, Black Pepper and Salt.
Cook together for couple more minutes.
Add freshly squeezed Lemon Juice and cook for additional minute.
Top fried Fish portions with the warm Tapenade and serve warm.