There is almost no better feeling when traveling than a phenomenon I sometimes refer to as a “celeb sighting.” I’m not talking about celebrities in the conventional sense, or even celebrity chefs. I’m talking about celebrity foods — the ingredients and dishes typical of a place that you maybe research before a trip, or hear about, and hope to encounter in situ. And then, sometimes by chance, they appear in shop windows, in market stalls and on restaurant menus. Tortellini in Bologna, okonomiyaki in Osaka, mole negro in Oaxaca — you get the idea.
I had one of my all-time best celeb sightings a few years ago in Paris. The subject was not a pain au chocolat, brioche or some other classically French delicacy. It was the humble Tunisian fricassee sandwich — a little fried bun stuffed with oil-packed tuna, boiled egg and potato, olives and harissa. My first true fricassee became emblematic of my belief that, when in Paris, small North African bakeries can provide the same amount of joy as the best-known boulangeries. And beyond that, they are wonderful places to experience the multiculturalism that defines 21st-century Paris and to challenge long-held assumptions about what defines “French” food. I remember the scene in that first bakery perfectly.
On tour in Europe with my indie rock band, we were put up at a chain hotel in the post-industrial suburb of Pantin after playing a small club in the neighboring 19th arrondissement. I knew nothing about the area and woke up early the next morning to take a look around with my bandmate.
It was the smell that stopped us. Those lucky enough to have visited France know the intoxicatingly sweet scent of caramelized butter that characterizes French bakeries. This smell was different. It was savory, with aromas of garlic, cilantro and olive oil. We walked in, and I immediately noticed the line of freshly prepared fricassees wrapped in plastic wrap behind the deli case. I was star-struck.
My introduction to the sandwich came at New York’s renowned Breads Bakery, which serves a version called “the Tunisian.” So I knew exactly what I was looking at that morning, and ordered one to have for lunch in the van. It was perfect — salty from the tuna and olives, rich from the potato and egg, fragrant and spicy from the harissa — and the bread, altogether new for me, was in equal measure yeasty and oily, light and fluffy.
We’ve played in Paris a few more times since then, and it’s now my little tradition to go try and find fricassees the morning after the show. After recently telling friends in another indie band to do the same, I woke up to a photo of a shimmering, harissa-slicked sandwich and rave reviews.
Though it seems like a no-brainer of a recipe, I never attempted to make the sandwiches at home until this year. The main challenge is the bread, because apart from the unique combination of ingredients that make up the filling, it is really what makes the fricassee special. The most similar thing I thought I could get my hands on was Trinidadian bara bread, the oily flatbread best known as the building block of “doubles.” I live in a Caribbean neighborhood, but I knew that it wouldn’t be accessible to most people. So, I turned to a dependable friend of many: Martin’s potato roll.
Toasted in olive oil, the Martin’s “long roll” takes on a fricassee-friendly personality: soft and chewy in the same way, about the right size and shape, and unfailingly delicious. The tuna, egg, potato and olives are easy to source (I like green olives, but oil-cured black olives are great, too), and then it’s just a matter of finding the right harissa. I love the versions made by Sun Lion and Les Moulins Mahjoub; the brands sold in tubes and cans, DEA and Le Phare du Cap Bon, in my opinion have less nuance.
The end result isn’t an exact replica of what I had in Pantin, let alone the fabulous versions I’m sure one would find in Tunisia, but it’s a very good approximation. So consider trying this at home, and on your next trip to Paris, prepare to be star-struck.
“Fricassee” means something different in many culinary languages; in Tunisia and its diaspora communities, the term refers to these satisfying sandwiches composed of tuna, boiled egg and potato, harissa and olives, served in a warmed bun. They’re great for casual lunches at home or picnics. Just be sure to bring plenty of napkins.
Harissa can be found at Middle Eastern markets, grocery stores and online. Sun Lion and Les Moulins Mahjoub are the author’s favorite brands for this dish.
The potato and eggs can be made up to 3 days ahead.
1 small Yukon Gold potato (3 ounces)
2 large eggs
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed
4 hot dog buns, preferably Martin’s Potato Long Rolls
Harissa, to taste
Two (5-ounce) cans tuna in oil, drained and roughly flaked
1/4 cup kalamata olives, green olives or oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved
Bring a small saucepan of water to boil over high heat. Add the potato and boil for 17 minutes, then add the eggs and boil for an additional 8 minutes. (You may need to add more water to the pot if some has evaporated.)
While the eggs and potatoes are cooking, prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.
Check the potato for doneness; it should be easily pierced with a knife. Drain and transfer the potato and eggs to the ice bath until cool enough to handle.
Peel and quarter the eggs; they will still be a touch jammy in the center. Quarter the potato (the peel may come off) and thinly slice each quarter crosswise.
In a large nonstick pan over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil until shimmering. Toast the rolls on the outside, until warmed through, about 90 seconds per side, then transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
To assemble the sandwiches, spread a liberal amount of harissa in each roll. To each roll, add 2 egg quarters and a few potato slices. Add some tuna and top with the olives. If you like, garnish with an additional drizzle of olive oil and/or dash of harissa.
Luke Pyenson is a New York City-based food writer.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Calories: 340; Total Fat: 13 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 135 mg; Sodium: 860 mg; Carbohydrates: 28 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 5 g; Protein: 31 g.