However, long before hipster kitchens buzzed to the sound of power smoothies, farmers and caravan drivers in the Maghreb – which runs from Libya in the east of North Africa to the Atlantic seaboard of Morocco – carried sacks of bsissa to ensure they’d have a good source of nutrition, even in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Serving as North Africa’s original convenience food, it could either be mixed with olive oil, or with water and fruits to create a satisfying meal-shake called rowina.
The past few years living in Tunis, I started noticing new types of bsissa in shops and eateries, including gluten-free versions, and the food was becoming a regular topic of conversation. During lunch in the capital city one day, a new acquaintance told me that her mother is from Lamta, where an annual bsissa festival is held, and gave me the contact information of the festival organisers so I could learn more about why bsissa is so important to the town. When I called the number, Khairi Sassi, a young, enterprising entrepreneur, picked up and invited me to visit his family’s bsissa business.
Sassi and his family’s lives revolve around the making and selling of bsissa. In their small shop, which is crowded with shelves housing packets of bsissa powder, his father Dalel ladled out zrir – a Tunisian dessert made of sesame seeds, nuts such as hazelnuts and pine nuts, butter and honey – into plastic pots. Dalel gave me a spoon so I could dig in and taste it, which is often sold alongside bsissa as its more luxurious counterpart, while Sassi showed me all the different types of bsissa available for sale and told me about his business.
“We all work together as a family – mum, dad, my sister and me,” Sassi said. “My mum used to work in an office and hated it, so we set up the workshop and we financed it all ourselves.”