I have always wondered why books on North African cookery didn’t have more recipes focused on Tunisian food. There is always a recipe for harissa, the spicy condiment that goes on EVERYthing, and perhaps a recipe for a bread or simple fish dish, but rarely is the cuisine of Tunisia featured in any significant way. I’m beginning to understand why. It is not that the ingredients here aren’t of good quality, or that the dishes aren’t tasty. Quite the opposite. But I hear over and over again, “This is good, but oh, you should taste the couscous in Morocco!” Or the vegetables, or breads, or whatever the dish may be; the culinary traditions in Morocco seem to have dominated the North African culinary landscape.
But here I am in Tunisia, and I’m interested in finding out what the Tunisians do well. My favorite thing so far has been the general category of dishes called brick. I’ve made a few loaves of bread over the years that could have been used as bricks, but this version of brick is far more palatable, needs no mortar, and is exciting for all of its possibilities. This is what it is: brick is a savory pastry (it could certainly be made into a sweet preparation, but I haven’t seen it) that uses a special type of dough called Feuilles de Brick. The dough is wrapped around a filling and pan fried and served with a squirt of lemon. The dough comes packaged sort of like tortillas but with a thin sheet of waxed paper between each. Unlike phyllo dough, it’s quite easy to work with, is somewhat elastic, and does not need to be brushed delicately with butter in between each layer. It reminds me most of the thin little pancakes served with Peking roast duck. The feuilles de brick are thinner, but otherwise very similar.
The brick pastry package
After doing a little research online, I found that chefs all over the world are doing fun things with brick pastry, both sweet and savory, and the thread of conversation I was reading was from 2005! Where have I been? Not in Tunisia, that’s for sure.
But here I am, and Aisha, the helper at Nada’s house, gave me a fantastic brick lesson. First we made the filling, which was a lovely sauté of poached chicken, steamed Yukon gold potatoes, and finely minced onion, flavored with parsley, salt and pepper. To this, she added a couple of eggs, lightly beaten and grated cheese (we used an Italian blend).
Rolling the filling in the 1/2 sheet of pastry.
The flavor was simple and certainly could be spiced up a bit with harissa, or changed completely to be made vegetarian. Really, any tasty combination of sautéed meats or vegetables would work nicely.
Next we rolled the filling burrito-style into the pastry rounds that had been cut in half, and pan fried them. No sealing the edges, no fussing with it at all. It was the easiest convenience pastry product I have ever used. We had a bit of extra filling, so Aisha showed me another traditional preparation which was to add the filling to the pastry, just as before but with a well in the center. She carefully cracked an egg into the well, and instead of rolling up the pastry as before, she simply folded it as a triangle to enclose the filling and gently lowered it into the hot oil.
Brick with filling and egg, ready to fold and fry.
The egg cooks with the pastry, but the yolk stays soft, like a poached egg. She folded the circular edges of the pastry to the center to make a square so that the pastry would have more body at the edges and would have enough thickness not to burn while the rest of the pastry browned.
It seems that the pastry could be folded in any manner in which other types of pastries are shaped, such as beggar’s purses, wontons, muffin tin cups, cigars, or any of the various filled pasta shapes. And some of the recipes baked the dough rather than frying it, which would certainly be healthier, but I think some of the crunch factor would be lost. Worth experimenting, none the less! I am excited to see whether I can find the feuilles de brick pastry in Sacramento. I’m guessing Mediterranean Market would have it, or could order it. And there’s always Amazon. I’m thinking of so many fun possibilities for summer produce pastries, and fruit filled turnovers. Brick is a fantastic new building material for my culinary toolbox.