Like most other peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, the Tunisians know their way around the garbanzo bean (or as it is known in some places, chickpea). A local specialty is leblabi (recipe follows), a rich, spicy, garlicky soup that utilizes the bean as its main ingredient.
Legumes are an important and revered part of the North African and Arab diets for not just their robust nutrition, but for a certain robustness they can, as legend would have it, offer to the man who eats them. In The Perfumed Garden, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Nafzawi’s fifteenth-century Arabic answer to the Kama Sutra, it is written that
Abou el Heïdja has deflowered in one night
Once eighty virgins, and he did not eat or drink between,
Because he’d surfeited himself first with chick-peas.
While the claims of the garbanzo bean’s (or chickpea’s) powers in this area are unsubstantiated, they are very high in zinc, folate, protein, and fiber and, like most beans, are among the healthiest foods you can eat. So whether you are planning a night like Abou el Heïdja’s (which, by the way, would likely end with your imprisonment in the modern age) or just looking to improve your heart health, consider the humble garbanzo bean.
Leblabi (or alternatively lablabi or leblebi)
adapted from From the Lands of Figs and Olives by Habeeb Salloum and James Peters
SERVES 3 TO 4
- 3/4 cup garbanzo beans
- 5 cups water
- 2 Tbs harissa
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- one handful cilantro leaves, chopped
- juice of one-half lemon
- 3 Tbs olive oil
- salt and pepper
First, the beans needed to be cooked. Some sources will call for soaking dried beans before cooking, but we don’t find that to be necessary, so we instead just put the beans and water in a pot and brought it to a simmer over medium heat:
Once the beans began to cook, the heat was reduced to medium-low and they were allowed to simmer, stirring every once in a while, for two-and-a-half hours until they were plump and tender:
The remaining ingredients were added to the pot with the beans:
…and simmered for another half hour:
After tasting the beans, we found that some of the lemon juice had penetrated into each one, giving the dish a very bright, herby flavor, a perfect contrast to the richness of the beans. The harissa had its say as well, lending its strong flavors of chilies and spices. Our Tunisian dinner was completely meatless (vegan, in fact) so the heartiness of this soup was an essential element of the meal. This was one of those dishes that left us content, full, and satisfied, but also feeling like a million bucks afterwards and ready to take on the world.