In Tuna-Obsessed Tunisia, a Favorite Food Becomes a Lot Less Affordable

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Perhaps you are one of the more than 5,000 subscribers to “Popping Tins,” an email newsletter devoted exclusively to tinned seafood. Perhaps you belong to a tinned-fish-of-the-month club, or have leafed through a tinned-fish-focused cookbook that tells you how best to cook a food already cooked.

Perhaps you, like some TikTok users, even hold a weekly “tinned-fish date night” with your spouse.

But until you have been to Tunisia, whose North African coast faces Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, you have not realized the full culinary possibilities of tinned fish — in this case, tuna.

The Tunisians put canned tuna on salads. They put it on bowls of stew. They dollop it atop pasta. They stuff it in brik, the hot pastries of shatter-crisp dough. They toss it on the grilled eggplant-and-pepper appetizer salata mechouia, arranging it in a decorative pattern along with a quartered hard-boiled egg and an olive or two.

Pizza arrives with a handful of canned tuna in the middle. Sandwich-shop customers who ask for no tuna often get a blank stare, a frown of confusion, the admonition, “just a little” — and a sandwich scattered with tuna.

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

He exaggerates only minimally.

Tunisia is a country where debates break out over the best local brand of canned tuna, whether El Manar, by Mr. Boumaiza’s lights, or Sidi Daoud, in the estimation of many in La Goulette, Tunis’s main port. The owner of a sandwich-and-stew shop there said he goes through nearly nine pounds of tuna every day.

“With tagine, though, you don’t add tuna,” said Dhikrayet Mansour, 42, who had just bought groceries from a small shop in La Goulette where stacked cans of tuna of competing brands monopolized several shelves — Sidi Jabeur, with its three diving tuna; El Manar, with its groovy typeface; Al Fakhama (“His Highness”), with its fork spearing a tuna steak.

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

Before the advent of canned convenience, many Tunisians along the coast preserved fresh tuna on their own 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 colossi.

Yet even that is not enough for Tunisia’s population of 12 million, most of it 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 positive, however, that it has nothing to do with the name of the country, which appears merely a dad-joke-worthy coincidence.

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

Mr. Boumaiza, the chef, speculated that it began as a way to ornament dishes.

Rafram Chaddad, a Tunisian artist who researches food traditions, cited a 19th-century legend about the origins of the classic “Tunisian plate,” which combines preserved tuna, the spicy chili paste known as harissa, preserved lemon, olives and pickled vegetables: A poor man from a coastal village near Tunis had gone from market stall to market stall, asking for whatever each could spare for his meal.

The true explanation, in Mr. Chaddad’s view, is probably much simpler: “We have lots of tuna,” he said.

A true statement, but an incomplete one. The waters off Tunisia are some of the world’s best spawning grounds for bluefin tuna, the highly prized melt-in-your-mouth variety used in high-end sushi. Every year, during tuna fishing season, boats from around the Mediterranean — Tunisians, Egyptians, Greeks — converge for the catch.

But as globalization would have it, very little goes to Tunisians. International restrictions on bluefin fishing and soaring global demand limit the haul. At wholesale prices of around $55 a pound for the sought-after fatty tuna belly and up to around $18 a pound for the rest of the fish, most of the available Tunisian tuna is exported to bring badly needed dollars into its listless economy.

Buyers fly to Sfax, the country’s biggest fishing port, from as far away as Japan to snap up hauls of tuna while they are still swimming around in the net. Other live tuna are herded toward shore, where fish farmers fatten them up before export. A small proportion of Tunisian bluefin is canned and exported.

Tunisia exported $58 million worth of live fish in 2021, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, more than two-thirds to Japan. The rest was split between Spain and Malta.

Before Japanese buyers arrived in the late 1980s, Tunisian tuna was sold to the domestic market and to Europe. Fresh and canned bluefin tuna was available in local markets for cheap.

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

“All of a sudden, 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 now is low-quality imported tuna. If it comes from local waters, it’s from less-sought-after kinds of tuna.

Bureaucracy, entrenched monopolies and money-losing government-owned companies have stultified Tunisia’s economy, economists say, and it can ill afford to lose the foreign currency brought in by tuna. But the economic meltdown brought on by years of mismanagement has now driven up inflation so much that many Tunisians can barely pay for their usual dose of canned tuna, let alone fancy bluefin.

Fishermen in Sfax said many families were once again preserving their own tuna at home. This was especially common before the holy month of Ramadan, when a family of four can easily eat through six pounds of tuna.

In late May, Majid Ben Hamed, a tuna captain who has fished since 1992, stood amid the blue and green fishing nets laid along the port, where everyone was busy mending them with long metal needles. Flecks of his cigarette ash and bits of fiber from the nets whirled together in the wind.

The season would start the next day and last just over a month — the limit enforced by an international agreement intended to reverse overfishing, which had by the 1990s driven Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna stocks to the verge of extinction. The pact saved tuna, Mr. Ben Hamed said, but he regretted that dizzying foreign demand had made it necessary, upending what had been a small, casual, local industry.

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

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

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


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