My Tunisia

Najet Werda: Cooking against the tide in Tunisia

Culinary passion mixed with Arab hospitality led one Tunisian to open a restaurant, now famous for octopus and couscous.

In Kerkennah, an island off the Tunisian coast, you can allegedly get the best couscous and octopus in the world – and the place to get it is Najet’s restaurant.

Najet Werda came to Kerkennah as a young girl and fell in love with the picturesque island’s low-key profile. She always dreamed about returning to the island, but little did she know that she would settle here and realise her dream with her husband, Fadhel.

“In 1989 when I first came to Kerkennah, it was love at first sight”, says Najet. I wanted to find something to do so I could stay here…. As a person who loves cooking, I thought, why not? Everyone loves the sea and food… things from the sea are beautiful and fresh.”

Culinary passion mixed with Arab hospitality led her to open her restaurant, Le Regal.

“I’m not like restaurants who do big quantities. Just a few things so it remains fresh and immediate,” says Najet, who takes advantage of weekly market runs in the islands’ capital, Erramla, for fresh produce.

My Tunisia is peace. My Tunisia is the sea, the mountains, the Sahara. It's my friends, my people, my land, my memories. My Tunisia is my love.

by Nejat Werda, chef and food enthusiast

While her menu offers a wide array of seafood dishes, octopus couscous is king at Najet’s restaurant.

“This couscous that we prepare with octopus is a speciality of Kerkennah. People love my octopus couscous. They have to order it in advance to eat it later.”

Najet’s customers can bring their own fish from the harbour and cook it themselves at the restaurant with the help of her team. Her long-time friend Sami Melliti, who is also a fisherman, keeps the diners entertained once they arrive.

He takes visitors on fishing tours and shares his knowledge of ancient fishing methods that date back to the Phoenicians.

“There’s a lot of local knowledge about our sea,” says Sami Melliti. “If you don’t know it you can’t be a fisherman.”

However, climate change is threatening the livelihoods of Tunisia’s fishermen.

“I used to make a good income. But after a while, fishing livelihood became thinner…the sea with time is getting worse… because of trawlers, because of our fishing methods using plastic fish-traps,” laments Sami. “It causes sea pollution. The state signs contracts with oil companies that want to operate in the sea. They pollute the sea, too.”

Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of Tunisia's fishermen [Al Jazeera]
Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of Tunisia’s fishermen [Al Jazeera]

Najet echoes the uneasy sentiments fishermen have about decreasing fish supply.

“In the past when we’d see people fishing like this we’d see the mullets jumping, sheets of them. People were yelling and having fun. It used to be fun. Now it hurts my heart to see these men [fishermen]. They did the first round and a second round and got four or eight fish.”