I slipped into the world of Lesley Blanch’s swashbuckling cookbook, Round the World in Eighty Dishes (1955), before I’d even heard of it. It was the early ’60s, and I was on my first visit to Paris with friends from university. The city was sizzling in a July heatwave, and our host took us to an Arab quarter near St Michel, where we saw something extraordinary to our English eyes: people not just eating in the street but cooking in it.
The North Africans performing legerdemain on their charcoal braziers seemed more like a troupe of fire-eaters and jugglers than cooks. One was frying green peppers with what looked like small sausages in a large pan, and adding chopped tomatoes. With a flourish, he then tossed half a dozen eggs on to the bubbling surface. The result was green and gold and scarlet and swirling – a Fauvist painting in a pot ‒ and I thought it the cleverest and weirdest food I’d ever seen. I didn’t know its name, and never got to sample it, but I resolved to try and recreate it when we arrived at our holiday destination, a villa on the coast near Barcelona. I made it on our last day, and it worked, much to my astonishment, given I’d never cooked anything like it before. We dined lounging on pine fronds like decadent Berbers, imagining we could see mirages of the African coast from the veranda. A year later, in 1962, Penguin brought out a paperback edition of Round the World in Eighty Dishes and it became my very first cookbook.
It was racy, exotic, more than a bit hippy. And there, in the section on Africa, was the dish I’d seen cooked alfresco in Paris, named as chak-chouka. Lesley Blanch had eaten it in Tunisia, sitting on the red earth in a troglodytes’ cave and watching the women cook in blue robes hung with amulets. Her recipe, simple enough, was exactly what I’d witnessed, but it was preceded by a cameo of Tunisian café society infused by her enthralment wi
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