Feeling the Heat in Tunis: A Travel Diary with Lamiri Harissa
Every family makes their own Harissa, a small batch and just the way they like it. It's a tradition that gets passed down through generations and is a representation of where you are from and your family's regional roots.
During lockdown Sam Lamiri started his first business, Lamiri Harissa, importing his family's harissa to the UK. We follow him on his journey back to Tunisia as he travels across the country to the source of his chillis. Described as "Tunisia's main condiment", Harissa is a hot chili pepper paste, native to the Maghreb, and used in the majority of Tunisia's fish and meat dishes.
What was the reason for the trip?
I’m half Tunisian so go all the time - usually for a sunny holiday, banging food and to see family. This time I had a new reason since I launched a harissa business during lockdown but couldn’t visit my family who were making it. When they finally took it off the “red list” I jumped on the first flight I could catch.
Tell us a little more about Lamiri and its connection to Tunisia?
Lamiri is both our brand and family name. The name comes from a small olive farming town in Sousse called “ Amira” where my family were originally berber farmers. Our family run brand, Lamiri Harissa is all about celebrating Tunisia's culture and cuisine. People in the UK know all about other north african countries like Egypt or Morocco and even harissa is starting to gain popularity but we’re here to tell everyone where it comes from and give Tunis some shine. Along with raising awareness, we’re on a mission to actively give back to local communities as we grow.
How would you describe the cultural importance of Harissa to the country?
Harrisa is everything to Tunisians, it’s in fact known as our “National Condiment”. We use it in almost all our cooking and it’s the first thing that comes to the table with bread in a restaurant. All across Tunisia you’ll see huge bunches of dried chillies hanging and trucks full of them because we eat so damn much of it. Recently I was even shown a new Tunisian comedy/horror movie yet to come out called “Un Monde Sans Harissa” which literally translates to “A World Without Harissa”.
Harissa originates from Tunisia. Every family makes their own, small batch and just the way they like it. It's a tradition that brings the family together and ties you back to your regional roots.
How would you describe Tunisia to someone who’s never been?
I’m a little bit biased but to me Tunisia is like heaven only everyone's shouting in Arabic, smoking cigarettes and drinking mint tea. It’s known as the Arab anomaly for a reason. We’re a tiny country compared to our neighbors Libya and Algeria but have so much to offer, from beaches to deserts, souks to subcultures.. If you go in summer it’s also hot, like 35-40 degrees hot. Luckily we have some beautiful beaches for you to kick back on where you’ll find young kids selling freshly caught sea-urchins that you wash down with a Boga Lime.
What keeps you coming back?
Personally I’ve been to Tunisia over 20 times to visit family but if they were all to migrate somewhere else I’d 100% still keep going back. In that time I’ve still only scratched the surface of what’s there and am constantly surprised by new places or things I discover. Saying that, what I find myself craving the most when I haven't been back for a while is the food… it’s next level.
Is there anyone you met on your trip that’s made a lasting impression?
During the trip I was lucky enough to finally meet up with Hedy Ben Hmida. A young filmmaker/ producer who I connected with during COVID to help me capture content on the ground whilst travel to Tunis was still banned. Hedy runs a platform, @TunezMagazine.tn which is dedicated to promoting Tunisian culture and spotlighting up and coming creatives. During my visit we would regularly meet in the Medina, Hedy gave me a whole new insight to our city, introduced me to other young creatives he’d met through university and explained the difficulties associated with trying to film and produce content in Tunisia.
What was the best thing you ate / saw / experienced on the trip?
The drive from Tunis to the Sahara was my highlight. When my girlfriend Thea flew out to visit we jumped in a car and drove across the country to the desert. Being in a desert itself was surreal and everything looked like something out of a movie but for me it was the journey there that was so special.
The Tunisian countryside is something else, a lot of the villages and towns are stuck in time and we’d stop off for local plates wherever we could. The best thing I saw during the trip was “Takrouna”. It’s an abandoned hilltop berber town in the middle of nowhere and the views are insane. It was empty with no tourists whatsoever as we watched the sun set overlooking the ruins of an old village with the evening prayer coming from the hilltop mosque.
Things to Avoid:
The police, unless you need them. They’re a nuisance and you can expect to be pulled over at least once by one who looks like they haven’t laughed in the last decade. My advice is speak English and drop in a couple “British Embassy”s if necessary - they should let you crack on soon enough.
Also don’t go to Tunis looking for a messy mates holiday (maybe try Hammamet). Although there’s an exciting new music scene emerging and nights out to be had, stumbling down the streets of Centre Ville with a bottle in hand won’t end well. Also maybe reconsider going there to sample the hash, although it comes from Morocco our laws are very different, as a tourist you’ll likely get ripped off/set up and with a 1 year for 1 joint policy it's probably not worth it.