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

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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.
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.
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.
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!
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.

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Tunisian Lamb Stew (Koucha)

A42f1f14 80fc 4725 9e60 f737f308d17a  18 ishay Ishay Govender-Ypma
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Serves 4
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes, or purchase pre-cut lamb stew meat (with bones, if possible)
  • 8 cloves garlic, sliced thickly
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2-3 teaspoons ras-el-hanout
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, leaves destalked
  • 1/3 cup thyme, de-stemmed
  • 1 cup parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 2 large potatoes, cut into 8 wedges each
  • 2 large green or red bell peppers, cut into thick strips
  • 500 milliliters (about 2 cups) vegetable or lamb stock, plus extra salt, to taste
  • 3 boiled eggs (optional)
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What's a meal you've tasted on your travels that you've attempted to recreate at home? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: stews, lamb