I’d waited seven years to taste the real deal again, during which time I made many attempts to replicate, imitate, reconstruct. Sometimes I came up longer than short, but it was never quite right. Lablebi, oh miracle dish of Tunisia, comforting stew of myriad spices. Cheap, quick, filling, and perfect for a cold and blustery winter day in the capital city of Tunis. Guided in my culinary endeavors by good friend (and veteran edibles guide) Zied, we aimed to be Champions of Lablebi, consuming full portions of this hearty, filling stew. We started with the requisite bowls of bread, tearing the chunks into smaller pieces, or crumbs, depending on personal preference (the smaller the pieces, the thicker the resulting stew, or so say the Experts). Bowls properly filled with bread crumbs, we handed them over to the Professionals Behind the Counter, who ladled steaming chickpea stew into each. They topped each bowl with mounds of spices: cumin, harissa, and others that should probably remain the secrets of Those Who Know. And then a few adroit tosses; just enough, not too much. And …
Sure, this is about the sweets: the chewy, the crispy, the honey-soaked, the ones you buy from your guy, the one to whom you trust your most saccharine indulgences. But this is also an ode to them: The Sweetsmen.
There are people who claim value in high art: ballet, opera, the finest works of most-lauded authors. I agree, I do agree, that’s all important. But if you ask me about poetry in motion, about where to find the art of life manifested, I’ll point you towards the markets, the wilds of a city, like the souk of downtown Tunis. You only know a place once you’ve learned its rugged streets, its funky corners, the beauty it hides in small bites and in plain sight. You know a place once you’ve engaged its most forthright ambassadors, its most plenipotentiary negotiators: market vendors. You know a place when you’ve breathed it in, whatever olfactory sensations that affords you! You come to know a place through the rhythm of footsteps on its pavement, when the many aspects of culture, climate and locale culminate to produce a throbbing, artful chaos. Greetings knock about as people slip past each other effortlessly, and the sacred in the ordinary is evident, and unremarkable, and breathtaking, all at once.
An excerpt from a recent email between close friends: In all honesty I’m terrified, and my confidence is shaken to the core. Nevertheless, I can’t deny the everyday gifts: the kindnesses, the peach cobbler, the call to prayer and the hypnotic, beautiful dikhr that pours out from the mosques on special occasions; the birds in the morning; the cool floors of my house; the farmer who insisted on giving me two giant, leafy heads of lettuce for free. I try to compose my days of those gifts, building out the time like the homes here that are indefinitely under construction. And of mindfulness, and of quiet and gratitude as well. Not easy, but worth it still. Photos from Tunisia’s striking Sidi Bou Said