It’s such a fun word to say, right? Teehee!
Halabessa, also known as ‘Hommos Sham’, is one of the most humble yet popular Egyptian street foods. Its popularity soars even more during the holy month of Ramadan, with the number of vendors on the streets significantly multiplying to keep up with the higher demand.
It is a very simple dish, like most Egyptian dishes are, yet the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts. Chickpeas get soaked overnight to soften the outer skin and make digestion easier, then they simmer in water flavoured with onion and garlic until cooked. This lovely cooking broth then gets spiced up with some tomato paste, cumin, chilli and a generous squeeze of lemon, making for a deliciously zingy and warming dish, usually eaten as a snack or for ‘sohoor’. For those who aren’t familiar with it, ‘sohour’ is a pre-dawn meal we have in Ramadan, just before the long day of fasting begins. I explain it in more detail here.
The thing that always amazes me is how incredibly buttery and tasty the chickpeas become when cooked this way…so ridiculously satisfying!
I have the fondest memories of countless Ramadans back in prep school and high school, when Ramadan still coincided with winter in Egypt. My entire school would be in the Gezira club (our hang out of choice) in the leafy district of Zamalek in Cairo, where we would all attend the ‘taraweeh’ prayers in the club’s mosque, then EVERYONE would stick around for hours after.
There were special Ramadan soccer tournaments held at the club every year, which were really just an excuse to hang out and socialize (so much drama…oh Lordy). Those who weren’t on the field were guaranteed to have a steaming hot foam cup of spicy Halabessa clasped in both hands to warm them up while they cheered on and carried out the usual commotion expected from teenagers. My heart is bursting with emotions just thinking about these wonderful days and all the fun we had.
This one’s for you, Alssoners. To the best days of excitement, mischief and togetherness, and the unmatched bonds and friendships we still hold onto till this day.
- • 500g dried chickpeas
- • 2 tsp. baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, known in Egypt as ‘carbonato’)
- • 1 onion, peeled and halved*
- • 2 cloves garlic, minced
- • 3 tbsp. tomato paste
- • 2 tsp. cumin, plus more to taste
- • 2 tbsp. lemon juice, plus more to taste
- • ground chilli powder to taste (optional)
- • salt to taste
- Place the chickpeas and baking soda in a large bowl. Cover with plenty of water (they will swell like crazy), cover the bowl and let soak overnight (or at least 6-8 hours) at room temperature.
- Rinse and drain the chickpeas well. Place in a large pot, cover with water till it reaches about 10-12cm (4-5 inches) above the level of the chickpeas. Add the onion and garlic and place the pot on medium-high heat.
- Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 30-40 minutes, until chickpeas are soft but not falling apart. I start checking at about 25 minutes.
- Remove and discard the onion. There should be plenty of broth covering the chickpeas to serve them with, so if the liquid is looking a little low add a cup or 2 of hot water to the pot. Add the tomato paste, cumin, lemon juice and chilli (if using). Season with salt. Simmer for 10 minutes. Serve in glasses or bowls, with extra lemon, cumin and chilli so that everyone can customize their own according to taste. Eat steaming hot! Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week and reheated as needed.