Tunisian Dishes From a Lost World

Nothing prepared us for the taste of Gilbert Bokobza’s splendid makoud, from a chef who learned the secrets of Tunisian cuisine from his mother.

Dan Peretz

Gilbert Bokobza was born in 1935 in the beautiful building that stands opposite the grand Majestic Hotel in the center of Tunis. The building was owned by his grandfather, and many of its 42 apartments were occupied by his relatives, in addition to the other tenants, who were primarily Jewish. In the lively Tunisian Jewish community of the late 1930s, religious and secular Jews lived side by side, as did French-speakers and Arabic-speakers, Zionists and holders of French citizenship. And the aromas that wafted from the kitchens there reflected this mix – Shabbat dishes, coffee with milk, pitas as well as white bread, makoud and béchamel.

When Gilbert was seven, Nazi storm troopers turned the fancy hotel outside his window into their main headquarters, and he remembers seeing one Nazi officer entering his room in the hotel, unpacking a picture of the Fuhrer, hanging it on the wall and giving it the straight-armed salute, there in the room all alone. The ceremony struck the curious young Bokobza as quite strange – Why would a person salute a picture like that? Bokobza is still curious, skeptical and secular, though he has perhaps mellowed a bit with age.

His father worked as an accountant, his older sister worked in a bank, and his older brother, being the eldest boy, was treated like a prince. Gilbert, the third of seven children, was expected to help with many of the household chores. And so he spent many hours in the kitchen, soaking up age-old Mediterranean and Spanish-African culinary wisdom, influenced by a modern French sensibility. After high school, he studied at the Sorbonne, first in Tunis, and then, together with his wife Sylvia, in Paris. He earned a doctorate in International Law.

When he came to Israel in the late 1960s to start a new life here with his wife and young son, he found that all his diplomas were only good for decorating the walls. No one needed a French-speaking expert in international law. Instead, for decades he managed the Air France station at Ben-Gurion Airport, and continued to crisscross the Mediterranean by air. His son, artist Eliyahu Arik Bokobza, born in Paris and raised in Israel, comes home every Friday to eat his father’s couscous and makoud, and makes his forgotten roots come to life in his expressive and boldly colored paintings.

“I always tell him that if he has something more important or interesting to do, he should go do it, that he doesn’t have to come home every time, but he keeps coming and keeps eating. He’s a good boy,” Bokobza says with a contented smile. Bokobza is the kind of person you rarely meet these days – very smart and deeply knowledgeable, and at the same time so modest and courteous that even a brief conversation with him brings a lost world to vivid life. Arik paints this world with his brushes while his father keeps it alive in his kitchen every Friday.

Gilbert Bokobza’s makoud. (Photo by Dan peretz)

Bokobza brought us his makoud wrapped in a towel. The glass pan held something that looked a bit like a pastry or a golden omelet, but its appearance didn’t hint in the least at its deep flavors. Bokobza held the pan and gently rocked it, said a few more words about the texture and color, and then he traced around the edges of the pastry with a sharp knife and flipped it onto a plate.

Nothing prepared us for the taste of Bokobza’s splendid makoud. It’s crisp yet juicy, heavy but with a light and airy texture, and can be a main course or an excellent meze to be washed down with arak. This is what happens with foods that pass from mother to son over the generations – they keep being improved and refined, until you end up with a round casserole that embodies all of that culinary wisdom at once.

Bokobza makes his makoud with chicken breast and keeps the seasoning to a minimum. If you wish, you could substitute a fattier piece of the chicken, such as the leg or the thigh, and also add the chicken bones to the stock, or a few herbs and root vegetables to deepen the flavor. You can actually make Bokobza’s wonderful Tunisian makoud from the leftovers of your Shabbat chicken soup, as long as you chop and crumble the chicken and add the stock to the casserole when baking it. A vegetarian version is also presented below.

Bokobza’s Tunisian chicken makoud (serves 6-8)

500 gr boned and skinned chicken breast

3/4 cup (180 ml) water

3 slices day-old challah

6 eggs

4 tbsp (60 ml) olive oil

1/2 tsp turmeric

sea salt

ground black pepper

Make sure the chicken breast is completely cleaned and boned, and separate the two chicken lobes. Place the chicken in a small pot and pour the water over it. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, until the color lightens and the chicken is thoroughly cooked. Season with a little salt and pepper, remove from heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, soak the challah slices in water for 15 minutes. Squeeze out the water and crumble them into a mixing bowl. Remove the chicken breast from the cooking liquid, but preserve the liquid. Chop and crumble the chicken into small pieces and add to the bowl. Season with turmeric and a little more salt and pepper. Crack the eggs into the bowl and beat with the other ingredients until a uniform batter is obtained.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Pour the oil into a 25-cm round Pyrex pan and grease the sides well. Put the pan in the oven and heat the oil for 5-10 minutes, until it begins to smoke and is very hot. Carefully remove the pan from the oven, pour the makoud mixture in the center and flatten out evenly.

Return the pan to the oven and lower the temperature to 140 degrees. Bake for 25 minutes until it turns golden and rises a little. Open the oven door and pour half of the cooking liquid over the makoud. Bake for another 10 minutes, and then pour the rest of the stock over it. Bake 10 more minutes until the makoud is firm and golden.

Remove from the oven and let cool a little. Cut around the edges with a sharp knife and flip the makoud onto a serving plate. Serve at room temperature along with an array of meze or with the Shabbat cholent.

For vegetarian makoud:

Substitute 600 grams of assorted mushrooms for the chicken, and fry them in a little olive oil before boiling. Leave out the turmeric. Add a little thyme and lemon instead.

For fish makoud:

Replace the chicken with 500 grams of skinned and boned sea fish, and add one parsnip and a few celery stalks to the cooking liquid.