According to Homer in The Odyssey, Djerba was the "Land of the Lotus Eaters." He wrote that after landing, Odysseus and his crew were given "flowering foods" by the natives, which induced such euphoria that they didn't want to leave — in fact, they couldn't remember how to get home. Today, however, it's hard to find a single lotus on the island.
According to our taxi driver — dressed in the traditional long, loose, black tunic — we were one of the fortunates to visit "the island of dreams." Driving past centuries-old olive groves, golden beaches, whitewashed fortress-like architecture and domed mosques, all made brighter by the Mediterranean sun, we were entranced.
Although the island has been changed by tourism, fishing methods have not changed since the days of the Phoenicians. In villages, you can see the huge, unglazed, terra cotta pots belonging to local fisherman, who still use the ancient technique called gargoulette to catch octopus.
Then, of course, there's modern luxury. Hotels where marble lobbies are the backdrop for gentle flowing fountains so that you feel you've been whisked into the Arabian nights. At the Khartagi Hotel, our suite filled with sunshine and the scent of jasmine, overlooked an Olympic-sized pool lined with yellow umbrellas and the sparkling Mediterranean.
But we were drawn to Djerba by the thriving, ancient Jewish community. The site of El Ghriba synagogue, in the village of Hara Srira, is said to go back either to 586 B.C. or from the Roman conquest in A.D. 71, making it the oldest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel. The present building was constructed in the early 20th century, with additions made during more recent years.
Certain historians are convinced that many Djerba Jews are descended from some of the Berbers — Tunisia's oldest inhabitants, who converted to Judaism. The Jews of Djerba fervently believe that a stone from the altar of the destroyed First Temple in Jerusalem was brought to Djerba by a group of Cohanim (or priests), and now lies under one of the arches of El Ghriba.
Old customs abound. One is for women to leave eggs — with the name of an unmarried girl written on them — near the arch. The tropical heat cooks the egg, which is then returned to the girl, who after eating it is sure to find a husband.
Inside, the synagogue is a cool oasis, with high arches and tiles of Mediterranean blue. Doors around the inner courtyard lead to rooms to accommodate some of the thousands of Jews who flock to El Ghribe for the annual Lag B'Omer pilgrimage. We took off our shoes before sitting under the blue and gold arches, where during services our hands were sprinkled with fragrant orange water.
The bimah in the center is draped with silk scarves placed there by female congregants. And though Peres Trabelsi, the synagogue president, speaks only Arabic, we were able to communicate through an interpreter and a smattering of French.
But most importantly, in Djerba, there is a tolerant, religious mix, enviable to the rest of the world. This is where Muslim and Jew live side by side, where Arab and Jewish children play together in the streets, mezuzahs are prominently fixed to doorways, and the magnificent El Ghriba synagogue stands not far from Islamic mosques.
There are kosher butchers, a yeshiva, kindergartens and an old-age home, all supported by the Jews of Djerba. Most Djerban Jews still make silver jewelry, as they have for centuries.
The recipes below are based on dishes served at our luncheon at Dar Dhiafa — a tiny boutique hotel in Djerba with an excellent restaurant — as well as in local Jewish homes. No pork is served on this Muslim island, and scores of delicious vegetarian dishes are available.
Shabbat Lamb Stew
This stew made with lamb or beef, chickpeas and spinach, is a special Shabbat dish of Tunisian Jews.
11/2 lbs. lamb shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup matzah meal
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 tsps. bottled, chopped garlic
2 cups water or vegetable broth
2 large onions, sliced
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 can (14.5 oz.) chickpeas, drained
1 bag (10 oz.) fresh spinach, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped parsley, packed
harissa or hot-pepper sauce to taste
Toss lamb in matzah meal. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large heavy pot, whisk together the olive oil, tomato paste, garlic, and water or broth.
Add the onions, celery, carrots and chickpeas. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Place lamb on top. Raise heat to high, stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Cover; cook for 30 minutes.
Stir in the spinach and parsley. Cover and cook for 40 minutes longer, or until the lamb is tender. Stir often.
Season to taste with harissa or hot-pepper sauce, salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Serve hot.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories 312; protein, 26 g; carbohydrates, 19 g; fat, 14 g; cholesterol, 73 mg; sodium, 289 mg.
Djerba Vegetarian Platter
Fava beans are tannish in color and closely resemble large lima beans. Harissa, a fiery-hot condiment made with chiles, spices and olive oil, is available in American specialty stores or Middle Eastern stores — or you can make your own (see below).
11/2 cups cooked fava beans or frozen, thawed lima beans
2 Tbsps. harissa or to taste
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
2 cups shredded red cabbage
2 cups sliced carrots, cooked or frozen, thawed
1 small cooked potato, sliced
2-3 Tbsps. sesame-salad dressing
1 cup canned, chunk tuna fish
Drizzle the fava beans or lima beans with 2 tablespoons harissa or to taste. Set aside.
In a cup, mix the mayonnaise and lemon juice. Add the red cabbage and toss to mix. Set aside.
Toss the carrots and potato with just enough sesame dressing to glaze.
To Assemble: Arrange the beans, red cabbage, carrot-and-potato mixture and the tuna fish attractively on a platter.
Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 208; protein, 10 g; carbohydrates, 18 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 14 mg; sodium, 393 mg.
Wear rubber gloves when handling the chiles, and do not touch your eyes or face!
1/2 cup dried chiles
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, cut up
11/2 tsps. ground cumin
Place the chiles in a small bowl and cover with warm water. Let stand at room temperature 2 to 3 hours. Drain.
Using gloves, split chiles, and remove and discard seeds. Cut in chunks and place in a blender or mini-food processor. Pour about 1/3 water over top.
Add the salt, 3 tablespoons olive oil, garlic and cumin.
Process until blended into a coarse paste. Don't worry if some small chunks remain.
Transfer to a jar, and then pour over a little olive oil to cover (make sure to keep face away when opening blender or processor, as the fumes are strong).
Refrigerate 8 to 10 days.
Makes about 1/2 cup.
Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 45; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 0 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 118 mg.
Spicy Mashed Pumpkin
(Pareve)One of the little dishes served before the meal or as an accompaniment to chicken and lamb. May use butternut squash, pumpkin or acorn squash.
3 lb. squash such as acorn, pumpkin or butternut
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp. bottled minced garlic
1 tsp. paprika (not cayenne)
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. caraway seeds (optional)
3 Tbsps. olive oil, divided
1 tsp. harissa or to taste
salt to taste
Cut the squash or pumpkin in half, and remove and discard the seeds.
Place squash, cut-side down, in a microwave-safe baking dish. Pierce several times with a sharp pointed knife. Pour about 1/3 cup water around.
Cover with wax paper and microwave on high for 12 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork in thickest part.
Remove the skin. Mash the squash with a fork. Transfer to a colander and let drain for about 30 minutes. Place in a bowl.
Add the onion, garlic, paprika, cumin, caraway seeds (optional), 2 tablespoons olive oil, harissa and salt to taste. Mix well.
To serve at room temperature or chilled, place in a bowl and drizzle the remaining olive oil over top.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 150; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 24 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 28 mg.
Apricots, Melon and Dates in Orange-Scented Honey
Dates grow abundantly all over Tunisia and Djerba; they're sold in clusters on long stems.
1/2 small cantaloupe, peeled, quartered and seeds removed
4 fresh apricots, halved and pitted
8 pitted dates, halved from stem end
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3 Tbsps. honey, warmed
1 Tbsp. grated orange rind
Cut cantaloupe into chunks (about 3/4 -inch).
Place in a serving dish; toss with the apricots and dates.
In a cup, mix the orange juice, honey and orange rind.
Pour over the fruits and stir gently to coat.
Serve at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 95; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 25 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 9 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.