Story and recipe by Mansour Arem
LABLABI IS THE EPITOME OF A COLD AND LAZY SUNDAY. The comforting smell of boiling chickpeas always takes me back to the earlier days in my Houston, Texas, home, my mother watching her favorite TV show in pajamas and I pretending to do my homework upstairs all while the scents of bubbling chickpea pot permeated the air.
In the Turkish language, the term lablabi actually means “chickpeas,” although the word finds its origins in the Persian language. Lablabi is historically a poor man’s dish believed to have come about during the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Tunisia around the 16th century or maybe even later. Legend has it, this chickpea-based, porridge-like soup was prepared and served to soldiers and citizens alike during times of war. Today, lablabi is highly sought after in the metropolitan cities of Tunisia, particularly throughout the coldest months of the year. Imagine enjoying a bowl of steaming hot soup on a brisk day—perfect for breakfast, lunch, or even a late dinner. As a twenty-something-year-old medical student, my father was obsessed with lablabi. It was his go-to morning snack after a long night out with friends. To this day, he insists that a hot, spicy bowl of lablabi is the ultimate hangover cure—with an ice-cold beer to drink, of course.
Made in batches, my mother, Noura’s, lablabi is rich and spicy yet refreshingly lemony. It’s quite simple to put together and calls for ingredients you probably already have in your pantry. It will warm you to the core and leave you smiling with satisfaction. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty hard not to love this dish, especially because each bowl is customized to one’s liking. This recipe is one of my mother’s takes on lablabi, and it’s relatively basic in comparison to more eccentric versions you may find assembled on the streets of Tunis. Indeed, this version doesn’t call for hergma, an ancestral Tunisian preparation of chopped veal trotters; or variantes, a mix of pickled vegetables akin to giardiniera; or even minced garlic. Noura’s cooking style is beautifully simplistic like that.
“Ya Mnaysser [an endearing nickname she often calls me to this day], don’t overcomplicate it,” she tells me. “As long as you use good ingredients, even the simplest dishes will shine.”
With that being said, realize that there is no right or wrong way to go about assembling your bowl of lablabi. If you want to add a few extra tablespoons of olive oil, incorporate other spices, swap the lemon juice with your favorite vinegar, or even ditch the tuna and eggs to make it a vegan lablabi, you most certainly can. Your bowl, your rules.
- 2 cups dried chickpeas, soaked for 24 hours, drained, and rinsed
- 10 cups water
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 4 large eggs
- 4 cups stale bread, broken into pieces (see Note)
- 1 (5- to 5.6-ounce) can tuna in olive oil
- 4 tablespoons harissa paste*
- 3 teaspoons capers
- 4 teaspoons ground cumin
- 3 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 pickled cayenne peppers
- 1 lemon, quartered
- In a large pot, bring chickpeas, 10 cups water, and salt to a boil over high heat. Cover and reduce heat to low; cook until chickpeas are very soft, 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes. They should be melt-in-your-mouth soft at the end.
- Fill another large pot with water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add eggs; cook for 3 minutes; transfer eggs to an ice bath.
- In one serving bowl, place 1 cup bread pieces. Add about 1 cup chickpeas with about 2 cups cooking liquid. Add one-fourth of tuna, 1 tablespoon harissa paste, ¾ teaspoon capers, 1 teaspoon cumin, ¾ teaspoon black pepper, 1¼ tablespoons olive oil, and 1 cayenne pepper. Crack 1 cooked egg into each bowl, using a spoon to help release the whites if needed. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon quarter on top. Repeat with remaining ingredients in three separate serving bowls.
- Mix each serving together with two spoons; add salt to taste. Dig in while it’s still hot and fresh!
*We used Zwïta Spicy Traditional Harissa, but their Smoky Traditional Harissa is also a good fit.
Mansour Arem and his brother Karim Arem are the cofounders of Zwïta based in Houston, Texas. Find out more at zwitafoods.com.