This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.
It's lunchtime. Chez Hattab, a simple restaurant with local specialties in the centre of Tunis, Tunisia's capital, is filling with hungry lunch-goers. It's 18 degrees Celsius, rather chilly by Tunisian standards, and when it suddenly starts raining, more people enter, all wearing winter jackets. They've come for lablabi, a popular hot and spicy soup renowned for keeping people warm during the winter.
Eating lablabi is quite an experience. You first have to get your hands on a clean ceramic bowl—don't try to queue in this country or you'll end up hungry. Then you pay at the counter, where you're given a piece of stale, round Arabic bread (too stale for a sandwich). You tear that up into small pieces. Next, jostle your way to the soup man, who will pour a thin soup with boiled chickpeas into your bowl. He'll also add a dash of olive oil, a large spoon of salt, garlic, and cumin.
"Har ou moush har?" he'll then ask. Mild or spicy? In other words, how much harissa do you want—lots or even more? Finally, he'll crack open an egg to top it off, either soft-boiled or raw. You need to stir it all well.
Nehal Pandya, a 28-year-old American who works at an NGO here, is one of the lucky ones who has found a table. "The first time I tried it, more than three years ago, I really didn't like it," she admits. "A Tunisian friend had to drag me back here to try it again."
Lablabi is not your average soup, after all. It has a strange, slimy texture. It's greasy, heavy, and spicy. Foreigners not used to such food can prevent a gastro-nightmare by sharing a bowl with a friend, not adding all the bread, and trying to convince the soup man not to add too much harissa. "I found the soggy bread unappetising at first, but there's a technique to tearing it into super-small bits that helps the consistency," Pandya continues. "You do need to be slightly adventurous to try lablabi. Maybe it helps that because of my Indian roots I'm used to eating spicy food."
Ahmed Badir, a 32-year-old police sports trainer, is standing at one of the tables outside, eating his lablabi. "It's healthy," he says about his daily lunch. "It's full of vitamins, gives you an energy boost, and helps build muscle." Like many others, he washes it down with a bottle of Boga, a sweet Tunisian soft drink.
Lablabi is a real working-class staple—cheap, quick to prepare, and filling. It will fuel you for the rest of the day. The dish is not as popular with the country's small upper class, and you won't find it in expensive restaurants. Some people only eat it at home because they are afraid of getting sick from street food.
Tunisians are extremely proud of their cuisine, which is spicier than in the rest of North Africa. Remarkably enough, there aren't any McDonald's here. It wouldn't be good for local restaurants if foreign chains had permission to operate in the country, which already suffers from high unemployment and poverty, but it is also uncertain how much interest there would be in foreign food, which is very unfamiliar to most Tunisians.
"Our dishes are the perfect blend of Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Berber, Jewish, and French food… that's why they're so tasty," explains Salim Bahri, owner of Le Saf Saf, a café and restaurant that has been in business since the mid-19th century in the upscale seaside Tunis suburb of La Marsa.
Le Saf Saf serves "regular" lablabi for 2 Tunisian dinar (about $1 US) and "special" lablabi for 5 dinar ($2.5). The special version has capers, olives, lemon, pickled vegetables, and tuna (another Tunisian favourite). Some places add cow's hooves to the soup (a variety called hergma), and in the northern town of Bizerte, you can get lablabi sandwiches. Bahri explains that many people enjoy going out together for lablabi. "It's the kind of food that makes you happy."
The origin of lablabi and the meaning of the name are unclear. "It's the sound it makes when the chickpeas are boiled," one of the soup men thinks. "No, it's the sound you make when you eat it," a customer states. Someone else says it comes from the Turkish word leblebi, which means roasted chickpeas. (The Ottomans ruled Tunisia for 300 years.)
While lablabi is originally a breakfast dish eaten in winter, it is now eaten at any time of the day. There are even places where it's sold on late summer nights. Then it's especially popular among young people hoping to avoid a hangover after a night out. Whatever the time of day or year, once you have managed to finish a bowl, you are probably going to want a nice, long siesta.