Small victories with a taste of cheese and Harissa!
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Oct. 3, 2022, by Amal Mekki
On our third date, Benjamin made a Raclette for dinner. He was happy and proud to introduce me to his favorite Swiss dish. I sat across from him at the table, and between us were plates full of cheese and vegetables to be eaten with Raclette and spices, and of course the Raclette oven itself.
There was a promise in his eyes saying: "You will love it, no one hates Raclette". And there was fear in my eyes, I hoped he wouldn’t notice it!
What if I eat Raclette now and get nauseous in front of him? What if I vomit? My fears were real, as the smell of cheese always made me sick and vomit... I only eat it in pizza or Tajine (Tunisian, not Moroccan) and other foods well cooked in the oven... As for cheese that is fresh, not hidden under dozens of first ingredients or in such large quantities, it is impossible!
To bring you closer to the picture, I was 10 or 11 years old, when two friends of mine bet that they could finally make me eat cheese. They brought a kind of cheese that you spread on bread. We were in a yard across from our house. I warned them that what they were trying to do was dangerous and required reluctance. We were in a public place where a lot of people were passing by, and I didn't want everyone in the area to see me in a similar situation.
However, they insisted. They didn't listen to my protesting voice as I gently tried to push away the first bite... They brought it to my mouth and their voice insistently urging me "eat it, eat it"... The smell was covering my nose and all my senses... In vain, I tried to resist... One of my friends was holding my arm to prevent me from escaping. The smell was in my throat now, as my closed lips were trying to fend off the attack. “Come on, eat it... I couldn't escape from their grip, and the first bite came into my mouth... I felt my whole body shivering with disgust... I got dizzy... "Swallow, swallow"... They insisted... "Swallow"...I can hardly hear them now as my teeth try hard to chew on a morsel of cheese bread. My voice came from inside, "End this suffering now, stop chewing, swallow and have mercy on us"... I closed my eyes and tried to swallow the bite... But my throat and stomach made a unified decision: "We will not allow this strange creature to reach us. Throw it away!”
And the rest is history... I became the first girl in my town to vomit cheese in a public place !
That memory made my fears grow and grow until they became like a dreadful black cloud looming over the dining table. "Good appetite" he said to me with smiling eyes. I don't remember if I answered him, with my shaky hands trying to waste time preparing the rest of the ingredients: I took three boiled potatoes from the big basket, cut them into small slices, and added to my plate slices of pickled tomatoes, onions and cucumbers...
I watched Benjamin make the first slice of cheese for me: He put some chopped onions on it and put them in the oven. I watched in horror the Raclette cheese being roasted in front of me... I prayed in my heart that it would take its time, so that it would not get roasted before tomorrow morning, for example... By then I would have been very far after I had eaten all the good vegetables, and I thanked Benjamin for the kind invitation and praised the delicious Swiss cuisine!
But the "mean" slice was quickly prepared... What's wrong with these "Made in Switzerland" ovens that don't take into account the special needs of foreigners and immigrants! Can I now ask the sky to make a miracle happen? What if the reddish yellow cheese in my hand turned into a cup of hot dark chocolate? That would be great!
But the sky was busy with other measures that evening, it seemed. So, I took my fate into my own hands. I let the melted grilled cheese flow softly over the boiled potatoes... I sprinkled it over with a little black pepper, paprika, and a special Swiss raclette spice... And with alleged consistency, I lifted the first bite to my mouth. Then the second, then the fourth... I put another slice of cheese in the oven... the sixth bite, then the eighth... Another slice of cheese leaves the oven red and melted. Tenth and twelfth bite…
His eyes were shining with green victory... "Hmmm, I've made this cheese-hating girl bend before the greatness of the Swiss Raclette!"
And I was enjoying my defeat.
For the first time in my life, I swallowed one bite of cheese after another without feeling nauseous. That night, I fell in love with cheese. Its smell tempted my nose with a hearty, warm meal, and the sticky texture of the cheese promised to be at my fingertips, and I would spread it as I liked over the potato slices.
Benjamin will always refer to that night as the first step to my integration into Swiss society, and as one of his victories !
As for me, my victory came later... slow, cooked over a low heat, in the form of "spicy Tunisian makrouna (Spaghetti)"! Benjamin has always used paprika, and he is accustomed to some spicy foods from Asian or Mexican cuisine, but that night, the poor man was on a date with "Harissa". It's time to pass into the "beast mode"!
Like every authentic Tunisian woman who "respects her Makrouna", I took my time to season the chicken and saute the tomatoes and harissa with oil, then let the broth cook on a low heat while smelling of bay leaf. I also added a spoonful of turmeric to the boiling water, so that the kernels of the spaghetti would take on a lovely yellow color.
Benjamin was not frightened as he ate the pasta I had prepared. He enjoyed every bite and highly praised its delicious seasoning. But the following day he told me that he spent the night with a severe stomachache.
That was a blessing in disguise. Harissa did it!
Later on, the Swiss and Tunisian dishes that we prepare will follow. Cheese and harissa will remain the main ingredients of our kitchen. Mixed kitchen for a mixed couple.
It has the softness of Swiss cheese and the spiciness of Tunisian harissa, diplomacy and popular anger, democratic stability and roaring revolutions.