In the last two years that we’ve been stuck in Hong Kong, we’ve embarked on “culinary voyages” for a change of scenery.
There was a period when we made popular South Korean dishes such as doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean paste stew), tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), and buchujeon (chive pancake); we even pickled cabbage to make kimchi. We were on a Southeast Asian roll with rich coconut curries and colourful vegetable wraps and salads dressed with fish or peanut sauces. For a while, our home was cloaked in the heady aroma of Indian spices as we made variations of daal and experimented with unfamiliar spices such as fenugreek and ajwain.
We also ventured further afield to places where neither of us has been. With the Internet as our seemingly all-knowing guide, we cooked foods that we had never tasted. For instance, an abundance of fragrant coriander greens from our local organic farm led us on a side trip to Iran where AB made ghormeh sabzi, a classic Persian herb stew.
Along these culinary journeys, we sometimes added new herbs or spices to our pantry. We also bought dried limes and preserved lemons – the former to make ghormeh sabzi while the latter was for a delicious tajine of eggplant and chickpea. All’s good except we have to continue using these additions before they get old and lose their original flavours.
When Life Gives You Lemons
Researching on what to make with preserved lemons led us to the Levant and North Africa regions. Yotam Ottolenghi’s bulgur with tomato, eggplant and preserved lemon yogurt, for example, has been a fine discovery.
One of our favourite uses for these salty lemons is the humble lablabi (or leblebi), a popular breakfast street food in Tunisia. In brief, it is a spiced chickpea soup served over chunks of stale bread and topped with savoury bits of your choice. But this description does not do this hearty dish justice for it has such rich flavours and a delightful assortment of textures. It is like a magical concoction, filling me with warm contentment while fortifying my spirit and mind for the new day ahead.
There are myriad ways to cook lablabi. The basic ingredients include chickpeas, stale bread, cumin, garlic and onion.
I prefer to make lablabi with rehydrated chickpeas cooked from scratch rather than canned ones for a better bite. For garnishes, I use olives, capers, tuna, tomatoes, parsley, tomato, and, of course, preserved lemon. A poached egg on top, plus a drizzle of olive oil and harissa paste, brings this bowl of goodness to another level where I’d be silently savouring each and every bite.
A magical concoction, filling me with warm contentment while fortifying my spirit and mind for the new day ahead.
2 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight, drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
8 cups of water or vegetable/chicken stock
1½-2 teaspoons ground and toasted cumin seeds, plus extra
1½ teaspoons salt
freshly ground black pepper
Juice of half a lemon
Eggs, room temperature, 1 per serving
Day-old bread, preferably crusty white bread, torn into pieces
Optional: 2 3×1″ strips lemon peel or zest
Fresh cilantro, parsley, or mint
Olive oil for drizzling
Labneh or thick yogurt
Green or red pepper
1. Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the onion and saute until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add cumin seeds and bay leaf, saute until fragrant.
3. Add the garlic and saute another minute.
4. Add the water or chicken stock, the drained chickpeas and lemon peel/zest. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until the chickpeas are completely tender, about 1 hour.
5. Add the ground cumin to the pot. Season with salt and pepper, and lemon juice. Remove the bay leaves.
6. Tear up the bread into pieces and place at the bottom of each bowl. Ladle in the chickpeas plus a generous serving of liquid. Garnish with toppings of your choice.
The chickpea stew (without the bread and garnishes) freezes well, which makes for a convenient breakfast or brunch another day. I would make a large pot of lablabi and set aside at least half of it to cool before putting it into the freezer.