There are no Libyan restaurants open in America and no Libyan cookbooks on any library or bookseller shelves. This means the only way to enjoy authentic Libyan food is to eat it in a Libyan’s home, making Libyan food even more alluring. These ten fun facts about Libyan food will expose kids to one of the lesser-known cuisines of the world.
Over the course of history, many of Libya’s African neighbors — from Egypt in the east and Morocco in the far west — were eager to immigrate and open restaurants in America. From coast to coast, they introduced hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, and many other Arab flavors.
Migration from Libya, however, has been restricted for a variety of reasons. Religion, colonization, a 40-year travel freeze courtesy of its former dictator, and a new travel ban currently being imposed by the Republican Administration have all contributed. The result is that Libyans are often the smallest minority in any city’s Arab gathering.
In addition, Libya is 90% Sahara dessert. Due to its limited vegetation, its culinary tastes are constrained and harder to find outside the country. Finding a Libyan friend offers a special connection to a food that is not often experienced directly. I’ve put together a list of ten facts that will help introduce your multi-culturally adventurous kids to this unfamiliar fare.
1. Date juice flows in Libyan blood
Date palms are hardy plants that can withstand growing wild in a desert oasis. Their trunks are used for fuel or lumber, their fronds are woven into a multitude of utilitarian items (sandals, baskets, etc.), and a single date bunch can produce over a thousand dates. Libyans use dates in everything. They eat them raw, mix them with flour for cooking or use them dried. Figs, apricots, and oranges are also hardy plants that can weather heat and are often added to foods.
2. Asida is the best smell on a special morning
Asida is not a common dish that is eaten every day. It is basically cooked wheat flour placed in a bowl, surrounded by butter, with an option to add honey or sugar as a side. The closest description I have been able to find in America is “pull apart monkey bread.” The American version is made in an oven. The family can then stop by during the day and pull apart the doughy bread mixture “like monkeys” after it has cooled.
Asida is very similar, except it is eaten all together with the whole family sitting side by side sharing breakfast. The word asida is an Arabic word derived from the root عصد (asad), meaning ‘twist it,’ because the dough must be twisted and folded in the pot while it is cooking. It takes a very long time to make and is usually reserved for religious holidays such as Mawlid and Eid. It’s also served during traditional ceremonies accompanying the birth of child. In our home, we also make it for birthday mornings!
3. A sharba is a must to break a Ramadan fast
Ask many Libyans and they’ll tell you a sharba is a must to break any meal. This tomato- based soup, with onions, lamb, chickpeas, and orzo pasta is a staple. It’s also one of the first meals fed to babies. I can’t remember a Ramadan in Libya, or in our Libyan home in America, not starting with sharba. Sometimes my stomach would use the smell of my mother making sharba in the kitchen as my countdown clock for iftar, the dinner that breaks the Ramadan fast.
It’s a very easy soup to make with kids, and the type of meat and pasta can vary, so it’s possible to make different versions depending on where you live in Libya. It’s impossible to break a Libyan’s addiction to this soup!
4. If you are not eating lamb, it’s seafood
Libya’s geography does not offer much room for raising cattle, so sheep are the most common animal found in Libya. But what the land does not offer in meat, the sea provides in the multiple varieties of fish and seafood eaten during meals. Commercial and independent fishing are major businesses in souks, the Arab open-air supermarkets where fresh ingredients are sold daily.
5. Bazin is the national dish
Bazin (Arabic: البازين) is similar to asida in that it is also presented in a dome or pyramid shape. However, that’s where the similarities end. Bazin is a dinner item, made with barley and eaten with meats, boiled eggs, vegetables and a red sauce. It has a much heavier texture and can be eaten any time of the year, so it’s not saved for special occasions. The barley flour is boiled, then beaten with a magraf, a unique stick designed for this purpose. The barley is then allowed to harden before being baked or broiled. It’s a very communal meal, eaten with your index & middle finger, with family sharing one dish together.
6. It’s not couscous, it’s kesksoo
Kesksoo is eaten in Libya more often then ruuz (rice in Arabic: أرز). In America, couscous is often eaten as a small side, plain except for spices added from a spice packet. But in Libya, kesksoo is cooked in a special steamer, called a kiskas. Small holes allow the juices from the simmering pot underneath to rise, and the steam transfers the flavor. The simmer pot contains vegetables, meats and a red sauce that will all be poured over the kesksoo for presentation later. It’s most often eaten with a side summer salad. Many Libyans place a small portion of salad and a small portion of kesksoo on the same spoon.
7. Nothing beats shakshuka on a cold evening
Shashuka originated in North Africa. When I try to explain it to people, they always say “Oh, like meatloaf?” Except that it’s not, since I don’t know many people who add poached eggs to their meatloaf. While lamb or beef can be used, traditional shashuka is made with Libyan gedeed, قديد ليبي, which is a preserved meat that is hard to find. The eggs are poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and garlic. It is often eaten as a dinner dish and presented in the pot it was cooked in to allow all the juices to be soaked up with bread.
8. You can’t just have one mubatan
Mubatan is like a beef slider, except Libyans use potatoes instead of bread buns. Libyans also take the extra step of frying them. I know, it’s not the healthiest of foods, but it really is the tastiest. It is unique to this country and often eaten as a dinner dish with other dinner options as sides. The meat stuffing inside the mubatan varies from region to region, but the way it’s cooked has been the same for many generations.
9. Check the ridges on your cookies
Ka’ek is a type of shortbread. First, the dough is rolled into a long strip and cut into smaller portions. Then, the portion is rolled into a ring and baked. It almost looks like a very skinny donut. However, before kneading the dough, either sugar or salt is added. Sugar makes the dough sweet while salt makes it more bread-like. If the ka’ek is sweet and meant to be enjoyed as a cookie, a knife is used to make small cuts on the outer edges of the ring before baking. If the ka’ek does not have cuts, then it’s more like a biscotti, best dipped in morning sweet tea or someplace else you’d need a more breadstick-like taste.
10. End everything with shai
Libyans drink shai (tea in Arabic شاي) several times a day. In the morning hours, milk is added to cool it down. But Libyans also drink shai at lunch or at the end of the day when socializing with family. Tea preparations often begin during dinner, with a daughter (or daughter-in-law) sometimes sneaking off mid-bite to start the water boiling. After the water comes to a boil, the leaves are added and boiled more. A teapot and glasses are then placed on a tray, along with a side dish of dates, oranges or other fruits, for the tea ceremony.
During the tea ceremony, the eldest pours the tea with the pot held high over the glass to create a reghwet, which is Arabic for froth. The tea is then poured back into the pot, and the process is repeated, usually several times, from glass to pot. This time spent with family brings everyone together to talk about the highlights of their day, chat, laugh, and share stories together. Mealtimes are usually quiet, with an emphasis on getting the kids fed, while teatime is the social hour. Talking and gossiping is a national pastime in Libya, and tea is essential to that tradition. Some families add almonds or peanuts to their tea.
I hope I opened your eyes to some new facts about Libyan cuisine. Of course, there is so much more I could share — our bread that is cooked in the desert sands, our macaroni (re)inventions adapted from the Italians, and our love of pistachio ice cream to name just a few. Stay tuned to A Crafty Arab for more Libyan recipes to come!