Imed Riahi, the owner of a traditional pastry shop in Tunis’s medina, slices cake into small pieces, then fills boxes with ka’ak warqa and baklava. Behind a display of Tunisian traditional sweets, he chats with customers, inviting them to try the delicacies and bargaining the prices.
In the last days before Eid al-Fitr, pastry shops are always crowded with customers. Sweets vary by region and the Eid feast celebrates the richness of Tunisia’s culinary culture.
It also reveals the difficulties facing the pastry sector, which is struggling to stay alive in the tough economic climate.
“I have been working for years as part of the family business. Since I am originally from Nabeul, our shop is famous for my hometown’s sweets, such as jwajem. A lot of our customers come here just for that,” Riahi said.
For Riahi, pastries are not just a delicious treat to be enjoyed with coffee on Eid, but a crucial part of his family’s heritage that spans four generations.
“We have been doing this for generations and, even now, we continue the tradition as it is a part of who we are. We don’t want these culinary traditions to disappear. Even my wife today learnt the recipes for the traditional sweets that we offer at our shop,” Riahi said.
While Riahi said keeping his family traditions alive is a priority, Mohamed Zarrouk, manager at Tunisia’s famed Pâtisserie Madame Zarrouk and a member of the National Union Chamber of Pastry Shops, stressed that a pastry shop is not only a profitable business but a place to preserve culinary traditions and heritage.
“In the 1960’s Hamouda Haddad, the then head of the Office des Céréales, was wondering how it would be possible to preserve traditions that are typically Tunisian. He decided to start a training centre for traditional pastries and he appointed Madame Zarrouk as the head of the centre,” Zarrouk said.
“They had generations of people who trained in making traditional pastries. Tunisian bakeries were popular. People who trained there opened their own pastry shops and so did Madame Zarrouk. That is how the business started and bakeries spread in many Tunisian towns.”
Traditional pastries are made with dough sheets called malsouka baked with a special recipe. Zarrouk said the pastry shop committed to using the homemade recipe to preserve the authenticity of sweets.
“We want to keep the traditional aspect of Tunisian pastries. The brik [dough] sheets are made the old way. You can see the difference between the original recipe and the new one,” Zarrouk said.
“This would be the goal as a member of the National Union Chamber of Pastry Shops. We need to promote Tunisian pastries that reflect our culture. Even the decoration of the pastry boxes should display the influence of Tunisian culture.”
Yet amid the revival of tradition and the celebratory aspects of Eid al-Fitr, Zarrouk spoke of hardships facing the sector.
“The acquisition of the primary ingredients of good quality can be frustrating for shop owners. In the ‘70s, butter was monopolised by certain companies and so was flour. Now things are better. For instance, in the past months there were issues with nuts and almonds,” Zarrouk said.
“With the wave of recent arrest of smugglers, the availability of products was affected but we are working on having this legally sorted. Smuggling these products is not good for the economy.”
Zarrouk and Riahi said they have noticed the effect of economic hardships on consumers who limited their purchases due to rising prices.
“Over the past years people have had less [to spend] and people cannot make pastries at home anymore because it is not profitable,” Zarrouk said.
Riahi said: “They do not buy as much as they used to because everything is getting more expensive.”
Tunisian bakers are modernising their industry while preserving tradition, offering a variety of Tunisian sweets that are decorated in creative ways.
“There is the artistic side but that should not come at the expense of culinary taste. We are trying to revolutionise pastries and the Tunisian culinary art. We have so many good dishes but no one is making use of them or decorating them to make them more popular.”
Despite the difficulties and issues, Zarrouk said Tunisian pastries exemplify the richness of the country as well as its culinary history, which has elements of many different civilisations.
“Our traditional pastries have many origins. Some pastries are Turkish. Other came from Andalusia like ka’ak warqa and many were a creation of Tunisians. What matters the most is to keep this tradition,” Zarrouk said.
Roua Khlifi a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.