Tunisian Chickpea Soup with Eggs, Capers, Olives, and Hot Chile Sauce

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    8

Appears in

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

By Paula Wolfert

Published 2003

  • About

In my opinion, the prize for most colorful, balanced, freshest, most delicious, and most exciting of all Mediterranean street foods goes to Tunisian leblebi. A souplike meal-in-a-dish, it consists of a large bowl of torn stale bread covered with long-simmered chickpeas, a boiling rich broth made with the trotters or bones of veal, and medium-cooked eggs, with the whites firm and the yolks still runny. It is served under an ample amount of the famous Tunisian hot sauce harissa, topped with a pinch of capers, a few juicy olives, and roasted sweet red pepper strips. Finally, it’s garnished with ground cumin, a lemon quarter, and, at the last minute, a drizzle of some intensely fruity extra virgin olive oil. The resulting melange, in its colorful abstract beauty, resembles a Joan Mitchell painting.

Leblebi is found in hole-in-the-wall stalls in cities and towns throughout Tunisia. The dish is usually served as a breakfast and is almost always cooked by men for men. I eat it whenever I go to Tunisia, enjoying the atmosphere of male camaraderie, the delicious flavor, the reasonable price, and its aroma so early in the morning.

Happily, leblebi is a dish that travels well. And you can enjoy the leblebi experience at home without veal or lamb trotters or a bunch of Tunisian men smoking as they eat it. Whether I serve it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, people usually ask for more. In the words of Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

Ingredients

  • ½ pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover with a pinch of baking soda
  • 2 cups rich veal stock
  • 1 pound veal bones, optional
  • 4 garlic cloves, halved
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • 8 very fresh eggs
  • 3 cups cubed stale peasant-style bread
  • ½ cup harissa, harous, or harissa-harous sauce, thinned to pouring consistency with water and olive oil
  • ground cumin
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 24 pitted black olives
  • 1 heaping tablespoon small capers, drained
  • 1 roasted red (bell) pepper, diced
  • Your best olive oil, for drizzling
  • 8 lemon wedges

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 225°F. Drain the chickpeas and rinse thoroughly; place in a deep heavy pot. Add the veal stock, bones if you have them, garlic, olive oil, a pinch of salt, and enough water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, cover, and transfer to the oven to simmer slowly until tender, about 3 hours.
  2. Remove and discard the bones and garlic. Skim off the fat. Correct the seasoning of the liquid. Keep the chickpeas in the cooking liquid. (Up to this point the chickpeas may be made a day in advance; cover and refrigerate. Reheat to simmering before continuing.)
  3. Prepare medium-cooked eggs: Gently lower the eggs in their shells into a saucepan of lightly vinegared simmering water; remove from the heat. Cover and let stand for 6 minutes in order to cook the eggs. Remove the eggs from the water, then transfer to a bowl of ice water to cool quickly; drain. One by one, gently roll the eggs on a hard surface to crackle the shells. Peel, beginning at the rounder side of each egg, dipping occasionally in cool water to facilitate peeling.
  4. Divide the stale bread among 8 deep soup bowls. Top with a ladleful of chickpeas and some of the cooking liquid. Set an egg on the chickpeas in each bowl, then cut the egg so the yolk runs. Dribble 1 tablespoon harissa or harissa-harous sauce over each serving, dot with pinches of cumin and sprinkles of salt and pepper. Divide the olives, capers, and diced red pepper among the bowls. Add more liquid, if necessary. Dribble on your best olive oil and squeeze a wedge of lemon on top of each. Serve at once.