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Journey to Djerba: Tunisian Chef Abderrazak Haouari

Chef Abderrazak Haouari left a career at two-star French restaurants to return home to Tunisia. Writer Paula Wolfert extols his massive talent.

I first met Abderrazak Haouari 15 years ago, when he was the chef at a luxury hotel on the Tunisian island of Djerba. His cooking was a revelation—subtly spiced, perfectly balanced and totally unpretentious, by far the most flavorful Tunisian food I'd ever eaten. When I learned that Haouari had trained in Europe and cooked at two-star restaurants in France, I was curious. "What made you decide to offer these typical Djerban dishes?" I asked.

"This was my grandmother's food," he explained, "the food I was brought up on. I cook it here because it's the food I love the most."

I fell for his lentil, bean and couscous dishes, flavored with fish or preserved meats simmered in olive oil. I was dazzled by his spicy chickpea soup (leblebi), his scrambled eggs with bottarga (salted, dried roe) in tomato-pepper sauce (ojja), and especially his savory and complex stuffed squid, enriched with an egg and some crushed calf's liver.

Haouari's cooking is comfort food. He takes fresh, local ingredients and transforms them into delicious yet simple Tunisian specialties, adding a pinch of spice mix here and a spoonful of fragrant red pepper paste there. The aura of calm that surrounds him as he works is astounding; he's the only chef I know who can cook for hours in silence, smiling as he patiently shows me how he does things. Most everything I've learned from him, I've learned by watching. We've traveled together over the years to promote Tunisian olive oil and teach regional Tunisian cooking, and my books are filled with dishes he taught me, including a method for baking bread in the hot desert sand.

To fully understand Haouari and his food, one must understand the island of Djerba, purportedly described by Simone de Beauvoir as the most silent place on earth. Its beauty lies in what my husband calls its relentless, awesome monotony—glorious beaches, blue-green waters, achingly clear skies. Men walk the streets of Djerba with sprigs of jasmine behind their ears. And the sun—always there's the Mediterranean sun!

The food of Djerba is savory and spicy. I've watched Haouari slip his special spice blends into whatever he's cooking. He carries little pouches of these mixtures wherever he goes to add what he calls "magic" to his food, usually complexity and heat. His blend for fish, for example, includes rose buds, black pepper, cardamom, dried orange rind and coriander; for meats, he mixes caraway, anise seeds, cinnamon, rose buds, red pepper, cloves, black pepper and coriander. Another one of his essential seasonings is a southern Tunisian version of harissa, called harous, a red pepper sauce made by salting onions and letting them ferment, then combining them with dried peppers and spices.

If you happen to be in Djerba, I urge you to eat at Haouari's café, Chez Haouari. Expect to dine on subtly spiced poultry and seafood, like the chicken here. If you prefer meat, he'll prepare lamb or goat that have grazed on aromatic local plants. He will surely serve you one or more of his stuffed sun-ripened vegetables. With advance notice, he'll even happily prepare a special meal for you; just tell him Paula sent you.

Chez Haouari is located in Djerba's tourist zone near the Sun Club hotel; 011-216-75-758-587.

Paula Wolfert is an F&W contributing editor. She recently updated her seminal 1983 book, The Cooking of Southwest France.

Published February 2006
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