Tunisia is a country that has a very special place in my heart because when I was 19 years old, I lived there during a 7-month cross-cultural exchange program which changed my life. I was paired up with a young Tunisian woman who became my lifelong friend and we lived and worked on volunteer projects together in our community. She has jokingly been described as my Tunisian twin separated at birth in part because she is every bit as food obsessed as I am. So when we see each other (which is not often due to the large body of water separating our two continents), we spend all of our time talking about food, sharing recipe and cooking and eating together. She recently came to stay with me for two months and gave birth to her baby boy here. You can read about our incredible adventure here and see photos of her adorable baby here.
We made many recipes together during her stay and this was one that I found both unusual, because of the way the rice is steamed, and delightful because of its spicy fragrant flavor! I just had to share it with you, especially since fresh spinach and greens are so plentiful this time of year.
You can substitute some of the spinach with other greens such as kale, collards, nettle, lambsquarter, or chard, though for the coarser greens such as kale and collards, it’s important to chop them very finely before adding to the mix.
This rice is called “Riz Djerbien” or “Rouz Djerbi” in Tunisia. It’s named after the region it comes from: the beautiful island of Djerba. I absolutely love this dish because it’s a one-bowl recipe and it’s so easy to make! You simply mix all the ingredients in one big bowl and then let the whole wonderful colourful mess steam for one hour.
The result of steaming the rice with all those spices and vegetables is that it soaks up the flavors as it cooks, creating a very tasty and hearty dish.
Tunisian food is often spicy but this recipe can be adapted to suit different tastes. I like to crush one small dried hot red pepper which gives this rice a lovely kick but won’t burn your mouth. You can also use one teaspoon of crushed hot red pepper flakes or cayenne instead. But if you prefer a more fiery dish, feel free to be more generous with the hot pepper! Be sure to use fresh spices. Spice jars that have been sitting on your shelf for more years than you can remember should be discarded as they may be rancid and can impart a bitter flavor.
This dish is quite nourishing served on its own but it also makes a wonderful accompaniment served with grilled meat. In Tunisia, chopped meat is sometimes added directly to the rice mixture before the steaming stage. Feel free to add about 500 grams of either chopped lamb, chicken, or beef if you prefer a meaty version. Simply cube the raw meat into bite-size pieces and add it to the mixture before steaming.
One final note about rice. In the video above, I deviated from Tunisian tradition slightly and opted for a short grain brown rice. It seems to be in my nature to always want to modify recipes based on whichever ingredients I have in my cupboard, and while sometimes this works to my advantage, some recipes should be left just as they are. What I discovered is that brown rice or short-grain rice is not recommended as it will deliver a steamed rice that is too dense and heavy. The best rice to use in this recipe is definitely a long grain white rice such as basmati rice.
As they say in Tunisia, Shehia Taeeba! (Bon appétit!)
Tunisian Spinach Rice (Riz Djerben)
- 2 cups organic white basmati rice
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 3 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 pound (2 bunches) fresh organic spinach, chopped
- 1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley (2 to 3 cups, chopped)
- 2 medium sweet white onions (about 2 cups chopped)
- 1 medium head of garlic, chopped finely (about 1/4 cup chopped)
- 2 medium potatoes, cubed
- 1 medium tomato, chopped
- 3 large carrots, chopped
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas
- 1 1/2 Tbsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground caraway
- 1 1/2 Tbsp smoked paprika
- 1 small dried hot red pepper (or 1 tsp hot pepper flakes)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- Rinse the rice well. Drain the water out and place the rice in a large bowl. Add the olive oil and tomato paste and mix well.
- Now add the chopped spinach, chopped parsley, chopped onion, chopped garlic, cubed potatoes, chopped tomato, chopped carrots, chick peas, and all the spices to the rice. Mix everything together very well.
- Pour this mixture into the top part of a large deep steamer and place on top of approximately 1 inch of boiling water. Make sure the top of the water isn't touching the bottom of the steamer.
- Cover the steamer with a lid and allow the whole thing to steam on medium heat for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, check the water level in the bottom pot and add more water if necessary.
- Carefully spoon out the steaming rice into a large bowl and gently mix it with a large wooden spoon. This will allow the rice to finish steaming more evenly.
- Return the rice mixture to the steamer and continue steaming with the lid on for 30 more minutes or until the rice is cooked to perfection. Serve warm and enjoy!
Yield: 6-8 servings
Aube Giroux is a food writer and filmmaker who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.
Aube is a passionate organic gardener and home cook who likes to share the stories of how food gets to our dinner plates. Her work has been shown on television and at international film festivals. Her web series was nominated for a 2014 James Beard Award. In 2012, she was the recipient of Saveur Magazine’s Best Food Blog award in the video category.