First Published: 2017-06-27

Eid revives Tunisian tradition of pastry making
Tunisian bakers are modernising their industry while preserving tradition.
Middle East Online

By Roua Khlifi - TUNIS

Vendor displays traditional sweets in Tunis

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.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

 

Baghdad refuses talks with Kurdistan about referendum results

Three Israelis killed at West Bank settlement

Seven arrested in Egypt for raising rainbow flag at concert

European ambassadors to US strongly back Iran nuclear pact

Dubai set to become first city with flying taxis

Libya's Haftar bolsters stature as key player

Kurdish independence: How far will Turkey go?

Germany’s de facto ‘IS leader’ on trial

IMF satisfied with Egypt's 'bold' reforms

Qatar Airways places $2bn order for six Boeing planes

Erdogan expects ‘ethnic war’ after Iraqi Kurdish independence vote

Israelis shocked by German nationalist gains

Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process shows growing Egyptian influence in region

74-year-old Iranian gets death sentence for explicit parties

Iraqi soldiers take part in Turkish military drill

Iran joins Turkey in warning of regional chaos from Kurd vote

Turkish hunger-striking academics in intensive care

Returning Syrians find Raqa city unrecognisable

How far can Baghdad become independent of Iranian influence?

Qatar World Cup worker sacked after speaking to UN team

China conducts first military drills in Djibouti

Saudi official axed over king's image with Yoda

Syrian government ready to discuss Kurdish autonomy

63-year-old American abducted in Yemen's Sanaa

US kills ISIS chiefs hiding in new nerve centre

Saudi establishment spreading Shiite hate speech

Madrid hails Rabat’s collaboration in fighting terrorism

Regional tensions rise in Kurds’ independence vote

Iraq Kurds start voting in historic independence referendum

UAE announces plans for region’s first nuclear reactor

Erdogan threatens Iraqi Kurds with border closure, oil block

Putin to visit Erdogan this week for Syria, Iraq talks

Sudan vows to step up efforts to improve US ties

Turkey to launch intervention into Syria — and maybe into Iraq

Egyptian ‘world’s heaviest woman’ dies in Abu Dhabi

Palestinian unity government remains unlikely

Emirati man fights his employer to serve in country’s army

Palestinian PM to visit Gaza next week

Saudi advisory body to tackle female driving ban

Turkey denies closing Iraqi border in response to Kurdish vote

US air strikes kill 17 Islamic State militants in Libya

US-led strikes killed 84 civilians near Syria's Raqa

Yemen's Hadi says military solution 'most likely'

The high cost of Syria’s destruction

Palestinian negotiator awaits lung transplant in US