Leblebi, Tunisia's comfort food, is a strange dish.
Served in a big ceramic bowl, leblebi consists a slow-boiled chickpea stew served over pieces of stale bread. The steaming mass will be topped with egg, very runny and lightly-cooked. Tuna and capers are optional.
Eating leblebi, though, is less about the food, its taste, or what it does to your stomach. It's all about the experience. [display_posts type=”related” limit=”3″ position=”right”]
A leblebi shop will commonly be found in a working class or ˜chaabi' area, in a high traffic location. There will be one or more massive aluminium vats, a stack of bowls, and mountains of bread.
To begin, take a bowl. These restaurants normally have a lot of traffic, so bowls are in demand and constantly being washed and brought back out, so you may need to dry it off.
You'll be handed two pieces of bread, roughly half of the standard round, thick Tunisian loaf. The bread will not be fresh. It will be somewhere between too old for a sandwich and so stale you could beat off an attacker with it.
Take your bread, and join your hungry comrades in tearing it up into little pieces into your bowl. Make the pieces as small as you can, given that you want to eat soon and don't have a lot of patience. Once you have a tiny stale pile, go see the soupman.
The soupman is unlikely to be in good spirits, although he will not be a recreation of a Seinfeld episode. He will take your bowl and fill it up with a boiling-hot, salted chickpea stew. The stew is thin but you will receive an filling amount of hearty chickpeas.
Now come the many fixings. The soupman will throw in a handful of spices on your stew, including cumin and harissa. The standard dose isn't very spicy at all, considering the bland contents of your bowl. Next comes the egg. You can get one or more eggs added to your leblebi, which will involve your soupman cracking them together and, nearly raw, dropping them into your bowl (if he's good, without the shell). Next to him will be a much smaller vat from which he'll give you a shotglass full of olive oil.
If you've gone for two or three eggs and a shot of olive oil, by now your bowl is a thick liquid sitting on top of, and slowly seeping into, your mound of bread. Take two spoons now, one in each hand, and mix this mess up. Stirring your leblebi gives the stew a steady consistency, soaks your bread, and because the chickpea soup is boiling hot, cooks your eggs. [display_posts type=”same_author” limit=”3″ position=”right”]
Now, elbow out some space on a ledge or small plastic table where you are inevitably eating your leblebi, and go at it.
The trick to not having the experience turn into a gastrointestinal nightmare is not eating the whole massive bowl. Take a willing friend, give him or her a spoon and take your time. Leblebi is best enjoyed with a cold soda from a glass bottle, which your restaurant may or may not be able to provide. If not, send your pal to the nearest hanoot for a drink.
Given the ingredients, leblebi's taste won't surprise you. There's no trick; this is a mealy, salty, oily, eggy flavor. The texture though, might catch you off guard. Imagine Cream of Wheat served in runny eggs, and you're about there. Certain bits of bread will be chewier and pockets of egg and oil will be slimier. Altogether, the meal is a positive and stomach-filling experience.
Leblebi shops won't be fancy, and will be male-dominated. Don't be surprised if one of your chickpea-eating mates strikes up a conversation.