But my company and I are in for something different (and preferably a place without a waiter out front beckoning for us to sit down).
We finally choose Fatma’s, mainly for its leafy terrace in this late summer we’re currently enjoying and the smiling couple that is too busy serving to be pushy. After all, Fatma and her husband don’t need to coerce anyone into eating here; they’ve been serving up Tunisian specialties to Brussels clientele since 1974.
We are greeted with an array of crunchy pickled vegetables: cucumber, olive, carrot, radish and fennel, to be precise. This makes for an ideal appetiser as the bits of veg are light and salty, stoking the appetite. We order a one-litre carafe of red house wine and are pleased with its smooth character and willingness to take a back seat to the food.
When we see the main dishes coming, no more than 10 minutes later, we rush to create some space on the table. There’s one giant ceramic platter of steaming couscous for all three of us, plus one big pot of vegetable stew to share between two, a side of Tunisian harissa (hot chilli pepper) sauce and chickpeas and, finally, my very own tagine dish.
Tunisian cuisine uses plenty of olive oil, spices and tomatoes. And the country’s traditionally nomadic culture has influenced the cuisine as well, so that they incorporate meat – mostly lamb – into their cooking and use tools that can easily be transported. The tagine, for example, is a cone-shaped earthenware pot that is relatively mobile and only needs to be set over a fire to do its magic. Meat, vegetables and a variety of spices slow cook in the bottom of the tagine, while the couscous above steams to aromatic perfection.
My tagine consists of chicken meat falling from the bones, equally tender vegetables (carrots, yellow squash and sugar snap peas) and a mix of spices: I taste saffron, ginger and fresh coriander. There are many lovely flavours and textures in this dish, made only better by the raisin-infused couscous, which I use to soak up the sauce.
One of my dining companions is sliding plump pieces of chicken from two long brochettes onto her plate. You can see the grill marks on the meat, and it has a very distinct smoky flavour. She helps herself to two big scoops from the communal couscous platter and pours a ladle of the vegetable stew over this. Bobbing in the thin, tomato-red broth with a hint of cinnamon are large chunks of courgette, carrot, fennel and potato.
The other diner is eating his stew with a portion of lamb shanks. His Couscous Maison is made with parboiled lamb cooked in its own juices. The flavour of the lamb is primary yet mild and enhanced by a handful of fresh chopped mint.
All of our dishes practically licked clean, we are forced to leave behind the last bit of stew and couscous. The bill comes to just a little more than €20 a head.
Jourdanplein 18, Etterbeek (Brussels) 02.230.95.97
Mon-Fri 12.00-14.30 & 18.30-22.30; Sat 18.30-22.30
Perfectly prepared Tunisian couscous and tagines in the heart of Brussels’ European district
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