Photos above, left to right, Harissa and Lablabi (Clifford A. Wright)



Chickpea Breakfast Stew
Difficulty: Easy

Yield: Makes 4 servings
Preparation Time: 40 minutes


Lablābī is a popular breakfast stew in Tunisia made with chickpeas, broth, tomatoes, and various toppings such as capers, cumin, harīsa, coddled eggs, eaten in a manner very similar to the way Egyptians eat fūl--or the Syrians tissaqiyya. The word lablābī is interesting. It is an archaic Arabic word that refers to the hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab L.), a bean native to India that is also known as the Egyptian or black bean. The word lablābī is not originally Arabic; it comes from the Turkish word for “roasted chickpea.” Lablābī is unknown among the Arabs of the Mashraq, the eastern Arab world. Mediterranean food authority Paula Wolfert suggests it is a food of Tunisian Jews.

Lablābī is a favorite winter morning breakfast for stevedores in Tunis. Throughout the city it is a morning offering in the small hole-in-the-wall cook shops that might also sell brīk, a deep-fried thin pastry stuffed with raw egg and other ingredients and casse-croute, a spicy tuna, tomato, and olive sandwich. The actual soup is very simple and its depth of flavor derives from the garnishes you decide to use. As a tourist you will come home wanting lablābī in the morning; that’s how seductive it is.4 cups cooked chickpeas, drained

2 tablespoons harīsa

4 large garlic cloves, mashed

1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Salt to taste

Juice from 1 lemon

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Optional garnishes, to taste:

Fresh lemon juice

Coarse sea salt

Coddled eggs

Seeded and finely chopped green bell pepper

Chopped very ripe tomatoes

Dollops of harīsa

Capers, rinsed

Pickled turnips


Finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Finely chopped fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves

Leftover bread, any kind, ripped

Extra-virgin olive oil

Place the chickpeas in a saucepan and cover with water. Boil until soft, about 30 minutes, then stir in the harīsa, garlic, cumin, and salt. Stir well, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and olive oil. Serve with more lemon juice, salt, and ground cumin to taste. Serve with any combination and any amount of optional garnishes, including more harīsa and olive oil. 

Note: Paula Wolfert, in a conversation with the author, December 10, 1993, and January 25, 1997, reports that one of the folkloric explanations for the word is onomatopoeic, that the spiciness of the lablābī is such that it leads one to make the same noise as the ram in coitus.


Harīsa (Harissa)

Difficulty: Easy

Yield: Makes 1 cup
Preparation Time: 1:15 hours in all


Harissa is the most important condiment used in Tunisian (and Algerian) cooking, and, in fact, you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Tunisian or Algerian recipe. It's hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum to Africa. Harissa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” (and should be transliterated harīsa), which is done by pounding hot chiles in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chile paste is also found in the cooking of Algeria, Libya, and even in western Sicily where cuscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be bought in a spice shop or made at home. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chiles and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored. 

Harissa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe.

Be careful when handling hot chiles, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose, or mouth. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chiles. After you make your first harissa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting women's work this was, making it in the traditional mortar. The specific dried chiles I call for are likely to be found in a Latino market.

If you would like to read more about how the chile made the voyage from the New World to North Africa see my article on the diffusion of the chile.

2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles

2 ounces dried Anaheim chiles (also called New Mexico chiles)

5 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds

1 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Extra-virgin olive oil for topping off

  1. Soak the chiles in tepid water to cover until softened, about 1 hour. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water, and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides. This will take a few minutes.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander, and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil, to protect it from bacteria. Whenever the paste is used you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil.