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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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