In tuna-obsessed Tunisia, a favorite food becomes far less convenient

Maybe you’re one of over 5,000 subscribers to “Popping Tins,” an email news bulletin exclusively dedicated to canned seafood. Maybe you belong in a canned fish of the month clubor having browsed through an article focusing on canned fish cookbook that tells you how best to cook already cooked food.

Maybe you, like some TikTok users, also keep a weekly”Canned fish date night”with your spouse.

But it wasn’t until you’ve been to Tunisia, whose North African coast faces Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, that you realized all the culinary possibilities of canned fish—in this case, tuna.

Tunisians put canned tuna on salads. They put it on bowls of stew. They put it on top of the pasta. They fill it with brik, the hot pastries of shattered crunchy dough. They toss it on the grilled pepper and tomato mechouia salata appetizer, arranging it in a decorative pattern along with a quartered hard-boiled egg and an olive or two.

The pizza comes with a handful of canned tuna in the middle. Sandwich shop customers who don’t ask for tuna often receive a blank stare, a frown of confusion, the admonition, “just a little,” and a sandwich doused in tuna.

“We add tuna, and it’s Tunisian,” said Alaeddine Boumaiza, 29, the chef who runs pop up dinner in Tunis, the capital. “If you want to eat Tunisian food, ask if there is tuna on it or not.”

It only exaggerates minimally.

Tunisia is a country where discussions break out on the best local brand of canned tuna, be it El Manar, in the lights of Mr. Boumaiza, or Sidi Daoud, in the estimation of many in La Goulette, the main port of Tunis. The owner of a sandwich and stew shop said he eats almost 20 pounds of tuna every day.

“With tagine, however, you don’t add tuna,” said Dhikrayet Mansour, 42, who had just shopped at a small shop in La Goulette where stacked cans of tuna from competing brands hogged several shelves – Sidi Jabeur, with its three tuna diver; El Manar, with its groovy character; Al Fakhama (“His Highness of Him”), with fork piercing tuna steak.

Then Mrs. Mansour tapped her head with a finger: Oops. “Ah no, wait. In tagine, you can add it too.

Before the advent of canned preserves, many Tunisians along the coast preserved their own fresh tuna with salt and olive oil, drying it in the sun. Now, at least a half-dozen factories in Tunisia produce cans of tuna ranging in size from hockey pucks to 11-pound behemoths.

Yet even that is not enough for Tunisia’s population of 12 million, most concentrated along the fishing-rich coast, forcing the country to import more cans from abroad.

No one seems to know for sure what made tuna so ubiquitous. Everyone is sure, however, that it has nothing to do with the country’s name, which just seems like a coincidence worthy of a joke.

Aziz Ben Ayed, the commercial director of ManarThon, which produces El Manar canned tuna, attributed it to Sicilian and Maltese fishermen who emigrated to Tunisia, bringing their food with them.

Mr. Boumaiza, the chef, speculated that it started as a way to decorate dishes.

Rafram Chaddad, a Tunisian artist who researches food traditions, cited a 19th-century legend about the origins of the classic “Tunisian dish,” which combines preserved tuna, the hot pepper paste known as harissa, preserved lemon, olives, and pickled vegetables: A poor man of a coastal village Near Tunis they had gone from stall to stall, asking what each could set aside for their meal.

The real explanation, according to Mr. Chaddad, is probably much simpler: “We have a lot of tuna,” he said.

A true, but incomplete statement. The waters off Tunisia are some of the best breeding grounds for bluefin tuna, the prized melt-in-your-mouth variety used in high-end sushi. Every year, during tuna fishing season, boats from all over the Mediterranean – Tunisians, Egyptians, Greeks – converge to catch their catch.

But as globalization dictates, Tunisians have very little money. International restrictions on bluefin tuna fishing and surging global demand limit the range. At wholesale prices of around $55 a pound for the sought-after fatty tuna belly and up to about $18 a pound for the rest of the fish, most of Tunisia’s available tuna is exported to bring in much-needed dollars. in its listless economy.

Shoppers fly to Sfax, the country’s largest fishing port, from faraway Japan to snap up the tuna while still swimming in the net. More live tuna are washed ashore, where fish farmers fatten them up before export. A small part of Tunisian bluefin tuna is canned and exported.

Tunisia exported $58 million worth of live seafood in 2021, second the Observatory of Economic Complexity, more than two thirds to Japan. The remainder was divided between Spain and Malta.

Before the arrival of Japanese buyers in the late 1980s, Tunisian tuna was sold domestically and in Europe. Fresh and canned bluefin tuna were available at local markets for cheap.

“Then, when we saw the prices the Japanese would pay…” said Mustapha Garram, a former tuna trap captain and experienced sport fisherman who has a weekly fishing segment on the most popular radio station in the country.

“Suddenly, you couldn’t buy it anymore. And when we found it, it was very expensive,” he said. “And Tunisians eat a lot of tuna.”

Much of what goes into Tunisian cans is now low-quality imported tuna. If it’s from local waters, it’s from less-researched types of tuna.

Bureaucracy, entrenched monopolies and loss-making government-owned companies have made Tunisia’s economy numb, economists say, and it cannot afford to lose the foreign currency brought by tuna. But the economic meltdown brought on by years of mismanagement has driven inflation so high that many Tunisians can barely afford their usual fix of canned tuna, let alone bluefin.

Sfax fishermen said many families are once again storing their tuna at home. This was especially common before the holy month of Ramadan, when a family of four can easily eat up to six pounds of tuna.

In late May, Majid Ben Hamed, a tuna captain who has been fishing since 1992, stopped among the blue and green fishing nets spread along the harbor, where everyone was intent on mending them with long metal needles. Stains of his cigarette ash and bits of fiber from the nets swirled together in the wind.

The season would start the following day and last just over a month, the limit imposed by an expected international agreement reverse overfishing, which had brought Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna stocks to the brink of extinction in the 1990s. The pact saved the tuna, Mr Ben Hamed said, but he regretted that soaring foreign demand had made it necessary, depending on what had been a small, haphazard, local industry.

“It’s gotten so commercial,” she said. He had tasted the bluefin tuna he caught, he said, but few other Tunisians ever would.

“There’s no one who wouldn’t want his family and fellow countrymen to have this tuna,” he added. “But for the people here, it’s so expensive.”

Massinissa Benlakehal contributed reporting from La Goulette, Tunisia, and Imen Blioua from Sfax.