The year is 1898 and Tunisia is about 17 years into being a French protectorate after being sold off by the Ottoman empire.
There once was an unemployed Jewish beggar by the name of Banon. Banon’s daily nutrition would consist of a piece of stale tabouna bread, which he’d split in half and enjoy twice a day, once for lunch and another for dinner. Bored of how bland his bread was, he began to incorporate ingredients he had access to from the local markets in order to make the bread more…. exciting. Cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, perhaps a filet of sardine cooked in tomato sauce, olives, harissa, and other preserved vegetables… one ingredient at a time. Attia, the neighborhood jeweler, took notice and became intrigued by this mysterious, colorful, and satisfying sandwich that Banon had concocted and was munching on... The beggar made the curious jeweler the same sandwich, this time carefully wrapped in newspaper for him. One bite and Attia’s mind was instantly blown. Rumors about Banon’s sandwich spread like wildfire to the point where everybody in the community and beyond sought the legendary sandwich. As clever as the Tunisian sandwich he had created, Banon went on to open shop in Tunis and made himself a fortune selling what is today embraced by Tunisians as the iconic sandwich of their country....
This story was told in Boubaker Ayadi’s "Contes et légendes de Tunisie", a quintessential resource for tales and stories orally transmitted and safeguarded by Tunisian story-tellers throughout decades and even centuries. Some disagree with how factual this story is and the reasoning is that a dish becomes part of a cuisine over long periods of time as opposed to over a few days, as this story seems to romantically imply. Although the sandwich was likely not invented so rapidly, it definitely did come from a place of survival, hunger, but also communal interconnectedness. The creation of such a sandwich stems from a yearning for something more complex, delicious, and exciting using the ingredients available at that point in time. There are hence various interpretations of this sandwich that you will find in different communities and homes. This Tunisian sandwich is a clash of flavors and textures and is sought after a lot by Tunisians seeking nostalgic flavor. There’s crunchy acidity from the cucumbers and onions, briny saltiness from the olives and other pickled vegetables, hearty starchiness from the boiled potato pieces, tender juiciness from the olive oil preserved tuna, soft creaminess from the egg yolks, and finally the harissa bringing it all together in each bite. This is how our mom always made this sandwich. Here’s what you’ll need:
Black olives (Kalamata is fine)
Olive oil canned Tuna
Finely chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions tossed together in olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper, dried mint, and salt (see Slata Tounsia recipe for more in depth instructions on that)
1 small white potato
Harissa paste (mild or spicy)
Step 1. Cut the small white potato and place it in a small pot as well as an egg and pour in some water until both are completely submerged. Bring the water to a boil.
Step 2. 6-7 minutes into the boil, remove the egg and place it into a container with ice and water so that it cools down quickly. Once cool enough (allow 10 minutes), peel the egg and cut into 4 pieces (or more if you prefer).
Step 3. 20 minutes into the boil, dip a small knife into the potato to check how cooked it is. It should be soft but not too soft while also being firm (but not too firm!). Take it out and dice into small pieces.
Step 4. In a small container, mix 1 Tbsp Harissa paste (mild or spicy) with 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, and 1 tablespoon of vinegar as well as a touch of salt . Alternatively, if you’re feeling crazy, substitute with Habarissa 🤪
Step 5. Slice off a 8-10 inches in length portion of the baguette and cut it in half. Layer the diluted Harissa mix (or Habarissa) onto both sides of the bread.
Step 6. Add some of your pre-prepared salad from the Slata Tounsia recipe. Try to leave out as much of the juice as possible so your sandwich doesn’t get too soggy.
Step 7. Add some of the diced potatoes into the sandwich.
Step 8. Add the tuna in small chunks into the sandwich.
Step 9. Add the olives into the sandwich. You can also cut them into smaller pieces to spread them out more if you don’t have that many olives on hand.
Step 10. Finally, add your egg pieces, hold the entire thing together and dig in!