Story and Photos By Tara Alan,
A few years ago, my husband Tyler and I were bicycle touring on Kerkennah, a desert island famed to be Kirke’s isle in Homer’s The Odyssey.
It was there, just off the coast of Tunisia, that we first tried the dish lablabi. This satisfying soup was vaguely reminiscent of the chili I grew up eating in North America, but it was far simpler, made of yesterday’s baguette, a scoop of hearty chickpeas, and an ample amount of spicy chili-garlic paste. Though the dish didn’t win any awards for beauty, the hearty meal was humble, delectable, and inexpensive.
Before long, lablabi had become a staple in our diet—we were immediately able to spot restaurants selling the stuff, identified by their giant stockpots and stacks of colorful ceramic bowls. To make a dish, the woman running the stand would hand us a bowl and a small piece of day old French bread. While she prepared the rest of the ingredients, we’d break the bread into bite-sized chunks, and add them to the bowl until it was full.
In another bowl, the lablabi-maker would prepare our soup. Based on what ingredients we pointed at, she’d add tiny spoonfuls of ground cumin, salt, and fresh minced garlic. She’d also mix in a few drizzles of olive oil and a heaping spoonful of Tunisian chili-garlic paste, called harissa. Finally, in went a large ladleful of chickpeas, along with the broth they’d been cooked in. Then, she’d mix everything together and pour it over the bread, which would expand and soften, giving substance to the simple soup.
After we’d eaten lablabi a few times at roadside stands, I began making it myself. It was thus that this simple, easily-adaptable recipe was born. To recreate the Tunisian soup on the road, I streamlined the process a bit, forgoing the two-bowl technique in favor of an easy one-pot meal. All but one of the ingredients to make lablabi are basic, no-frills staples you’re sure to find anywhere you go.
The outlier here is harissa, that delicious red Tunisian garlic-chili paste that lends color and spice to your bowl of lablabi. I recommend buying a small tube of it and carrying it with you as you travel. Harissa comes packaged in metal tubes or cans, and can be found at North African markets, international grocery stores, and online through various retailers. If you’re feeling industrious, you can even make it yourself before you hit the road.
However you procure it, harissa is a delicious and versatile flavoring agent. Mix some in a puddle of olive oil as a bread-dipper, add a bit to soups and stews, flavor your fried eggs with it, or stir a spoonful into a pot of instant couscous. The possibilities for this tasty, highly concentrated condiment are endless.
To make camp-style lablabi for one very hungry traveler (double the recipe if you’re making it for two), here’s what you’ll need:
* 1 large clove of garlic
* 1 15.5-ounce can of cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
* A scant 2 cups of water (just fill up the can of beans when you’ve emptied it)
* 2 chicken bouillon cubes
* 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
* 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
* 1 teaspoon harissa paste to make a medium-spicy stew, or more to taste (If you can’t find harissa in your part of the world, try adding some hot sauce, cayenne pepper, or chili flakes)
* About 6 inches of day-old French baguette (fresh will work just fine, if that’s what you have)
* 1 tablespoon olive oil
salt to taste
To make the soup, begin by mincing the clove of garlic. Add it to a 2-liter, nonstick cooking pot, along with the beans (including the liquid), water, bouillon cubes, cumin, pepper, and harissa.
Prime and light your Whisperlite stove, and then set the pot on the flame to heat. While it’s warming, tear or break the bread into chunks and add them to your bowl. Once that’s done, give the beans a stir and poke at the bouillon cubes until they’ve dissolved. Taste the beany broth for flavor, adding a bit more salt, pepper, and harissa if necessary. Allow the mixture to boil for a minute or two.
When the chickpeas are soft and the broth is seasoned to your liking, pour everything into your bread-filled bowl. If too much liquid was boiled away as it cooked, and your bread isn’t fully soaked through, add a bit more water and give the stew a stir. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil on top, and enjoy.
I enjoy this soup exactly as it is written above. However, if you’d like to add some quintessentially Tunisian toppings, try flaked tuna, minced olives, and chopped hard boiled eggs.
For more of Tara’s recipes click here.