It is my steadfast belief that every great food culture has a dumpling, utilizing the looser definition of the term: a filling wrapped in a carb. Argentinian empanada, Polish pierogi, Jiangnan xiao long bao, Greek mpougatsa, Japanese gyoza, Nepalese momo, Indian samosa, a Boston cream doughnut… the list, thankfully, is endless.
The North African country of Tunisia has its own version, too—here, we gorge on brik a l’oeuf, a triangle shaped, deep-fried pastry. My own grandmother, Memeti, has been making me brik since I was a child. My most visceral memory is of her standing in the kitchen, cracking a raw egg into the brik wrapper. Barely at eye level with the stove, I would watch the brik bob up and down in the oil; I was so impatient to eat it, I would often burn the roof of my mouth. As a kid, I would only eat brik during summer visits to Tunisia. Now that I live here, I’ve taken it upon myself to eat them constantly.
Brik first starts with a paper-thin pastry sheet. Tunisian Jews call the wrapper a warqa, which means ‘paper’ in Arabic. Muslims refer to it as malsouka; both words can be used interchangeably. Now mass-produced and sold in supermarkets, the best wrappers are of course handmade, and can still be bought at local markets.
Next comes a small mound of filling with a depressed crater at its peak, to make room for an egg. The whole thing is gingerly folded in half and dropped into a vat of simmering oil, where it is deep fried to crispy perfection. It’s best to eat it hot, with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon.
Photo: Rafram Chaddad Boaz
Brik is ubiquitous across Tunisia, although its origins are murky. The word ‘brik’ possibly comes from the Turkish word börek, a baked phyllo pastry stuffed with a savory filling. The Turkic root of börek, ‘bur,’ means ‘to twist.’ (The French bit, l’oeuf, meaning ‘with egg,’ is a relic from French colonization.) From the 16th to 19th centuries, Tunisia was a province of the Ottoman Empire; the Ottoman influence is still tangible in Tunisia, particularly in architecture.
They might have had a semantic impact on brik, but there’s nothing Turkish about the technique or taste of Tunisia’s national dumpling. It’s more likely that it originated in or around southern Tunisia, and was the culinary work of Tunisian Jews, although even making those claims are contentious and secondary to the deliciousness of brik.
“Libyan Jews say they started it, but I was in Tripoli and there was nothing there, not even one person making it in the street,” Rafram Chaddad Boaz, a Jewish artist from the Tunisian island of Djerba, told me. Boaz, who has a mess of dark brown curls and a few days worth of stubble, is one of those truly colorful characters you only meet a handful of times in life. He grew up in Jerusalem, consciously objected to military service, founded Slow Food Israel, and spent some time in a Libyan prison after being wrongly accused of plotting to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi (he was in the country to photograph Jewish heritage sites). Last year, he returned to his motherland, where, among other things, he informally acts as the country’s in-house food historian. His own brik recipe was included in Yottam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook.
“It’s a very hard thing to trace,” he continued. “They say it’s at least 500 years old… everything is new and old, anyway. Brik is more new.” However, and wherever brik started, it caught on quickly, and it’s now eaten across the country. There are regional varieties to the filling, indicating that as the food spread, people utilized what was around them to stuff their brik. Until cheaper oil alternatives were brought into the country, olive oil was the frying oil of choice.