The central market in Tunis
Some cities are wonderful for vegetarian food. Any traveler who has been to Sydney, Mumbai, London or Singapore for example, is spoilt for choice with meat-free food that is fresh, tasty and creative.
In these cities you can find many restaurants that are producing innovative vegetarian cuisine, either exclusively or as part of a wider menu. Most of these places have moved beyond understanding vegetarian cuisine primarily in terms of its health benefits or good karma, and offer great food without a lecture about baby animals or your bowels.
Tunisia, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. Not only is the city short on restaurants serving international cuisines which are vegetarian-friendly, the concept of vegetarianism is unfamiliar to many people. Don’t want the lambs’ brains? Just pick them out. Or try the grilled fish instead. Although there is a general (though not total) absence of pork and other pig-based products in the country, the notion that someone would not want to eat any animal products still seems to baffle many waiters and chefs here.
Despite the challenges however, it is possible for a vegetarian to eat well in Tunisia, either by choosing carefully from a Tunisian restaurant, hunting down one of the few vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Tunis (and other large cities), or self-catering at one of the many fresh produce markets.
Several dishes in traditional Tunisian cuisine do not contain meat. One of Tunisia’s most famous dishes, the spicy salade mechouia, is vegetarian, as is salade tunisienne – a blend of cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. Be aware, however that restaurants will often add tinned tuna to these dishes, unless you ask for them not to do so.
Other dishes are sometimes vegetarian – vegetable couscous can be meat-free, but the sauce is often made with lamb. Ojja, an egg-based dish sometimes has lamb’s brains and sometimes doesn’t. Tajine (a kind of omelet) is usually vegetarian, except for when it has chicken in it, and kefteji, an oily, tasty mix of potatoes, capsicum, pumpkin and eggs can be served with liver. The hearty, chick pea-based winter soup lablabi is another dish that is likely to be vegetarian but often has tuna as a condiment.
Alternatively, in Tunis, and other big cities, vegetarians can eat at a number of restaurants serving non-Tunisian cuisine that is vegetarian friendly, including Indian, Japanese, Lebanese and Italian. Although few restaurants in Tunisia can reproduce the quality and diversity available in the homelands of these cuisines (often due to the limited availability of ingredients), vegetarians will be able to find something to eat. These restaurants are not as common as in many other cities and can often be a little pricey by local standards.
The third option, and often the best, is self-catering by shopping at one of the many excellent fresh produce markets that cover the country. The most famous is probably the central market in Tunis, located between the train station and the medina, a block back from Avenue de France. Here you can buy seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as bread, dried fruits and nuts, pasta and cheese. The soft-cheeses such as ricotta are especially tasty and good value. There is also a daily covered market in the beach suburb of La Marsa and in many other neighborhoods. Most markets only operate until early afternoon.
Tips for a vegetarian traveler in Tunisia
The concept of vegetarianism does not exist in traditional Tunisian society, so it might be difficult to make your wishes understood, even if you have a good handle on Arabic or French. As a rule of thumb, the closer you get to major tourist centers, the easier things get.
If you are eating in a restaurant, take your time with the waiter to check that there is no meat, but also no chicken, fish or other animal products you don’t want to eat. It is worth noting that in French the word viande (meat) only refers to red meat, not fish and poultry. In Arabic the word is (لحم) or (lahem).
Vegetarians staying in a resort hotel should be fine as most places are used to catering to international guests and many offer buffets. However, don’t be afraid to venture beyond the pool to try the food in local restaurants.