The Tunisian Lamb Stew I First Tasted in the Desert, Recreated at Home

February 21, 2018

Douz, a town surrounded by swaths of desert, is two hours east of the Tunisian city Tozeur, along a causeway that cuts through the Chott El-Djerid, a magnificent dry salt plain that shimmers in muted mauves and pearlescent silver. I was in Douz, referred to as the gateway to the Tunisian Sahara, as part of a sustainability-forward tour that included a night in the desert with the Bedouin cameleers who live in the nearby villages.

It was there that I first saw a golla, a vessel that resembles a jug on its side. When the cook took a golla out of an underground wood-fire and broke the dough seal, steam billowed out. He was making a tender lamb stew called a koucha. Paula Wolfert, in her doting cookbook Traditional Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, asserts that most food tastes better when cooked in clay. She had a point.

Gollas resemble jugs on their sides. Photo by Ishay Govender-Ypma

Later in the trip and deeper into the Sahara, surrounded by nothing more than dunes, a cameleer named Meki set up a cooking station in a tent made of goat hair and sheep’s wool, where he made a thick, fragrant stew with tender lamb, peppers, onions, and potatoes. There’s a hint of wild thyme and rosemary, too. A subtle smokiness from the wood fire permeated the stew, the garlic had melted into buttery nubs, and the peppers offered a mellow jolt of spiciness. Meki also prepared couscous to eat with the stew, along with a salad and brik, a crispy pastry filled with tuna and egg. Unlike the koucha I had in Douz, this one wasn’t cooked in an underground golla, but in a rather worse-for-wear metal pot. It was still very impressive.

This goes for miles and miles. Photo by Ishay Govender-Ypma

How did all that food come from the bags in our wee convoy? I turn to Meki and Ali, another cameleer, and ask: “How do you cook for even bigger groups?” They shrugged. Some secrets will remain here.

The cameleers live in nearby villages. Photo by Ishay Govender-Ypma

When I’m at home, I stand in my kitchen and think of these meals, as well as the shifting sands and the faithful camels. I try to recreate the rich comfort of that lamb stew. Without an enchanting golla of my own, I prepare my stew in a sturdy cast iron pot, which I cover tightly and transfer to the oven to cook slow and mellow. I immediately regret that mine will lack the irreplicable scent of woodsmoke, but instead I focus on the elements that seem consistent in a koucha’s preparation, in and out of the desert—earthy vegetables like carrots and potatoes cut uniformly and arranged in a spiral over the lamb; the thick strips of pepper that add color; and the indispensable ras-el-hanout, that essential North African spice mix.

You don't need to be on a desert picnic to make this stew! Photo by Rocky Luten

I know the tightly-shut pot will mimic the effect of the golla. I’ve had similar, equally-worthy stews made in city kitchens in Tunis, the capital city. But without ras-el-hanout, I’d lose the essence of the koucha—that's when I improvise and make my own, loosely based on the flavors I recall perfuming our desert meals: cumin, coriander, paprika, cinnamon, turmeric, and the musk of fresh-crushed cardamom. The cameleers are a mirage at the edge of my counter, cheering me on. After all, if they can pull out a feast from a saddle bag, perhaps I can do so in a fully-fitted kitchen on the other side of the world.

What's a meal you've tasted on your travels that you've attempted to recreate at home? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Cassandra Brecht
    Cassandra Brecht
  • Noelle Phillips
    Noelle Phillips
  • Snoussi Lagha
    Snoussi Lagha
  • Ishay Govender-Ypma
    Ishay Govender-Ypma
Ishay is a former lawyer, now a freelance food and travel photojournalist, delving into all aspects of culture. Author of Curry: Stories & Recipes across South Africa. She's fascinated by what makes us human.


Cassandra B. March 4, 2018
What a great story! Looking forward to trying this.
Ishay G. March 4, 2018
Thanks, Cassandra. Enjoy it when you do make it.
Noelle P. March 4, 2018
Great read. We did an 8 day camel trek with Meki, Ali, Mohammed etc. Perhaps credit the Sahha Sahara tour co in your article? I'm assuming this was through Juanita/Sahha Sahara.
Noelle P. March 4, 2018
My apologies - when the article first opened on my phone I couldn't see the hyperlink on tour but on a second opening I see it's there :) great read in any case - brought back memories @
Snoussi L. March 4, 2018
Vegetable oil ?!!!!!!
What a blasphemy 😉
You need to use olive oil