Citizens, few things delight the heart and soul of your unsurpassed Suzerain – the always investigative TFD! – more than solving a good mystery. Especially when that mystery pertains to food – and even more so when it is also a cultural touchstone to my religion! I speak of a delicious recipe native only to the Jews of Tunisia known as Pkaïla!
Specifically, Pkaïla is a dark, nearly black, stew of spinach, meat, garlic, and white beans.
Pkaïla falls into the T’fina (a warm, slowly cooked sabbath dish in the Sephardic tradition) category. T’fina is the Sephardic equivalent of the Ashkenazic cholent, another stew of repute to the Jewish people. Another Sephardic term for this type of dish is hammim – a warm dish.
You may have noticed that despite this being a Jewish dish, the name in the title is in what appears to be Arabic. It is – sort of.
Judeo-Tunisian Arabic is one of the Judeo-Arabic languages, a collection of Arabic dialects spoken by Jews living or formerly living in the Arab world. Judeo-Tunisian Arabic, also known as Djerbian Arabic, is a variety of Tunisian Arabic mainly spoken by Jews living or formerly living in Tunisia. Speakers are older adults, and the younger generation has only a passive knowledge of the language.
The vast majority of Tunisian Jews have relocated to Israel and have shifted to Hebrew as their home language. Those in France typically use French as their primary language, while the few still left in Tunisia tend to use either French or Tunisian Arabic in their everyday lives.
Mosaicmagazine.com has this to say about the Tunisian Jews:
Once home to over 100,000 Jews, Tunisia, unlike other North African countries, has retained a significant Jewish community, even if one much reduced in size; some 1,000 Jews live on the island of Djerba, and a few hundred more are on the mainland.
Jews from Israel, France, and elsewhere still flock to the island in large numbers for the annual pilgrimage on the holiday of Lag ba’Omer. But the community remains intact thanks to a heavy military presence, and some of its historic synagogues can barely get ten men together for prayers. Cnaan Liphshiz writes:
[Djerba’s] Jewish community persists thanks to what locals—Jews and non-Jews alike—say is a special set of circumstances: the local Arabs’ relative immunity to waves of xenophobia and political agitation seen on the mainland. Pretty much all aspects of life in Djerba bear the effect of centuries of interaction among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, who have lived here since Roman times.
Whereas elsewhere in Tunisia the traditional bean stew known as tfina pkaïla is considered a typically Jewish dish, here in Djerba everyone eats and makes it. The island’s best makers of the blousa—a traditional Djerban woolen robe that Muslims wear on religious holidays—are all Jewish. The Jewish tailor Makhiks Sabbag and his son Amos are widely considered the very best.
196flavors.com has this to say about pkaïla:
The dish that represents the Tunisian Jewish cuisine by itself: the quintessential pkaïla. The pkaïla is not necessarily a national dish because it is really only known to the Jewish community.
However, there is a very close variation of this dish that was adopted by the Tunis residents. This variant, called madfoun is characterized by the ground beef instead of beef cuts used in the recipe of the traditional pkaïla. The Tunisois also prefer Swiss chard over spinach in most recipes of madfoun.
Often cooked for Saturday lunch in traditional Tunisian Jewish families, the pkaïla is a festive dish more than anything. The origin of the pkaïla is not very clear but the main ingredient and method of frying suggest that it was probably inspired by Italian cuisine (like many Tunisian dishes). Indeed, the cultivation of spinach requires a cool, damp climate. Such climate is not characteristic of the countries of North Africa. (TFD NOTE: MORE ON THIS LATER!)
As lastly noted by renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi in the NY Times:
Tunisian Jews make a condiment called pkaïla or bkeila, which is extraordinary. It is prepared by cooking down plenty of spinach for hours in a generous quantity of oil. The spinach — Swiss chard is often used as well — loses all its water, and very slowly fries in the oil, resulting in a small amount of greasy paste as black as crude oil, which is used to flavor all kinds of soups and stews.
I have known about this method of cooking spinach for years, but I could never quite bring myself to try it. It seemed strange to cook a leaf for so long, and until it goes entirely black. What flavor could possibly be left? It was counterintuitive, particularly to someone like me, who has been pleading with people for years to please not overcook their vegetables.
Still, I tried, and after putting a tiny spoonful in my mouth, I thought: Wow, I don’t think I’ve actually tasted spinach before. The long process distilled the flavor to its essence. It was pure spinach, and absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t have much of it — it was superrich — but I then cooked my own version of tfina pkaïla, a beef, bean and pkaïla stew, served on Saturdays and special occasions in Tunisian homes. Mine had oxtail and butterbeans, with the pkaïla imparting a spinachy magic all over. As I was devouring it, all I wanted to do was add more and more pkaïla.
It is very interesting that spinach is used in a Tunisian dish – spinach requires a cool, moist climate that is the very antithesis of Tunisia. Yes, it could have been imported from Italy as several sources note, but that doesn’t seem to make much sense in an isolated Jewish-specific dish.
The probable answer is to be found in both etymology and history.
First, “pkaïla “ isn’t even “spinach” in Arabic. إسفاناخ ( isfanah = “spinach” in Arabic and Persian ) exists and “spinacio” is Italian.
Any Tunisian who has actually heard of pkaïla knows it directly or indirectly only as a recipe of the Jews of Tunisia. If, however, you tell him it’s a dish in dark green sauce: “Ah! Do you mean melloukhia?!”
This makes a LOT more sense now – melloukhia grows throughout northern Africa, is very close to spinach in looks and taste and has an incredibly strong Jewish connection! Known as Judenmalve in German, Jew’s mallow in English, yute in Spanish and mauve-des-Juifs in French, it is, according to a note of Naguib Mahfouz somewhere in his Trilogy of Cairo , called “grass-of-the-Jews”.
There are several melloukhia recipes specific to the Jews of Egypt, and it most definitely has a spinach-like consistency, albeit more slippery. This also explains why Jews of Tunisia who no longer use melloukhia and have substituted spinach now add a calf’s foot to the stew – it adds back in the natural gelatin that the melloukhia original had!
Mystery solved – sort of. Interestingly, the name for the beloved Georgian spinach appetizer recipe is – wait for it – pkhali! A linguistic bridge between Arabic and Georgian culture now seems obvious to me, the philological culinary philosopher who alone is TFD!
Pkaïla is most generally accompanied by couscous but can also be served without couscous and with Tunisian bread aka ‘Italian bread’. The classic pkaïla recipe generally calls for osbane, a sausage of tripe prepared into a casing of beef.
However, because it is virtually impossible to find this in the United States, I instead call for the much easier-to-find merguez sausage instead. Merguez is a red, spicy mutton- or beef-based fresh sausage from Maghrebi cuisine – you can buy it here.
My version of the recipe elevates it significantly by using the very rare Tunisian green harissa as its herbal base – my recipe for it is here. For use in this recipe, you should add some ground dried Persian lime to the Green harissa base – you can buy top-quality ones from here. I also call for an optional hit of the even rarer Tunisian rose harissa – made, of course, from rose petals! You can use my homemade recipe for it, found here, or buy it pre-made from Amazon here.
Citizens, whether you are Jewish or not, I hope you have enjoyed the investigative reporting I made for this recipe and I certainly hope you will try it no matter what your ethnicity or religion! 🙂
Battle on – The Generalissimo