Recipes from Libya


Have you heard? This year's flu shot is only 23% effective. What does that mean exactly? That it's 23% effective against all flu viruses? Or it only protects against 23% of the flu viruses that are out there? I don't know really, but I can tell you this: it was zero percent effective for us. Except for my husband, who was the only one of us who didn't get the flu shot. For him, it was 100% effective. Figure that one out.

So, I am just now emerging from 2 1/2 weeks that can only be described as hellish, with one child after another suffering from fevers in excess of 104 degrees and me hardly able to drag myself out of bed to take care of the ones who had to stay home from school. I spent the better part of three weeks feeling like I'd just put away a couple of bottles of Nyquil, not to mention the coughing and aches and fever. I did lose four pounds though, so I guess there's a silver lining in everything, haha.

Anyway, I'm back, sort of. This week we're in Libya, even though I actually cooked this meal so long ago I almost don't remember it.


You don't hear a whole lot about Libya these days, but when I was a kid it was always in the news. Libya was involved in the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, and before that happened they got a lot of negative attention for buying arms and sponsoring various paramilitaries and terrorist groups all over the world. The US disliked them enough that we tried (but failed) to take out head of state Muammar Gaddafi in 1986. In fact he remained in power (though mostly as a figurehead) until 2011, when the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia and Egypt inspired Libyans to rebel. The revolution was short but bloody, and eventually ended in the capture and execution of Gadhafi in the summer of the same year.


Sadly, the revolution failed to unite Libya and today the nation is torn between the armed militias of various regions, tribes and cities, and the central government has been wholly unable to control much of anything. It's easy to see why, because Libya is a nation with a lot of hardship. It is the 17th largest nation in the world, but much of it is not only desert but "one of the most arid and sun-baked" deserts on earth. In some places it doesn't rain for years. In fact in Uweinat, there hasn't been any rain since 1998.
Awbari, Libya. Photo by Patrick.

So much of Libya doesn't grow anything at all, and quite a lot of Libya's food is imported. Libyans eat a lot of grains but the nation imports five tons of wheat for every one ton it actually grows. And Libyans love their wheat, because they have a tradition of eating pasta as a staple, especially in the west. This comes largely from that brief period of time between 1912 to 1927, when Libya was occupied by Italy and officially known as "Italian North Africa."

I didn't do any pasta recipes though, I stuck with rice (more commonly eaten in the east) because this recipe sounded pretty good:

Ruz Hoot bil Kusbur (Herbed Rice with Coriander Seeds and Fish Fillets in a Cumin Marinade)


(This week all my recipes come from Libyan Food.)

For the rice:
  • 3 cups short grain rice, rinsed and drained
  • 6 cups hot fish stock
  • 5 tbsp corn oil
  • 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1 chili pepper, finely chopped
  • 2 to 3 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1 tbsp ginger, grated
  • 1 to 2 tbsp coriander seeds, lightly toasted
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp salt
For the fish:
  • 6 white fish fillets
  • vegetable oil
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 chili pepper, finely chopped (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 5 tbsp white flour
  • 5 tbsp fine breadcrumbs
  • 2 to 3 tbsp water
  • 2 eggs
Plus a bread:

Libyan Herb Bread (Khubzah bil A3shab)

For the dough:
  • 1 cup warm milk mixed with 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 tbsp dried yeast 
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 4 cups white flour
  • About 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
For the flavorings (according to taste):
  • Thyme
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary (optional)
  • Green and/or black olives
  • Paprika
  • Chili peppers (optional)
  • Cheese (optional)
This salad:

Green Broad Bean and Artichoke Salad (Salatet Fool Akhdar)
  • 14 oz green broad beans
  • 6 artichoke bottoms
  • 1 red chili
  • 1 green chili
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • Juice of half a lemon
And for dessert:

Date Filled Semolina Cookies (Magroodh) 
  • 3 cups semolina
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup corn oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp orange blossom water or rose water
  • 1/2 liter warm water
For the filling:
  • 1 lb 10 oz date paste
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds, lightly roasted
For the syrup:
  • 4 cups boiling water
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 lemon slice
  • 2 tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds, lightly roasted
Let's start with the bread:

First mix the yeast with 1/2 cup of water and the sugar. Let stand until frothy, then add to the milk and water mixture. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and mix well.

Now add the herbs. I used olives, parsley, paprika and feta cheese. I would have used the chili peppers but spicy stuff is wasted on my kids. Of course, olives are wasted on them too ... but there you go.

Now mix in the olive oil, then cover and let rise in a warm place for about an hour.

Heat your oven to 425. Butter a cake pan (I used a bread pan for mine) and add the dough. Brush the top with olive oil and bake until golden.

Now we'll do the date cookies:

First mix all the syrup ingredients together and bring to a boil. Reduce heat the medium and simmer for 30 minutes or until the consistency starts to resemble a syrup. Add the blossom water and then set aside and let cool.

Meanwhile, mix the semolina with the flour and baking powder. Add the oil and mix well. Cover and let rest for about an hour.

Now for the filling. You probably can't buy date paste at your local supermarket (I can't), so just get some dried dates and put them in your food processor with a little water. You don't want it to be soupy (it should definitely be a paste) so make sure you don't add too much water.

Add the cinnamon, nutmeg and sesame to the date paste.

Divide the dough up into four parts and add a little bit of the blossom water to each one until the dough becomes smooth and easy to work with. Now roll each one out into a long cylinder, and then put a furrow in the middle of it, like this:

OK now put the date paste into the furrow. The recipe says to roll out the date paste too, like you did with the dough, but mine was the wrong consistency for that so I spooned it in.

Pinch the edges of the dough together over the date paste and roll until smooth. Now cut at an angle into small pieces about half a finger length in size.

Bake at 450 degrees for 12 minutes or until golden. Pour half the syrup over and let stand 15 minutes, then turn each cookie over and pour the rest of the syrup on. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and let rest before serving.

Now let's make the salad:

First boil the broad beans and artichoke bottoms until tender. I used canned versions of both, so I got to skip this step.

Meanwhile, put the garlic and chiles in your food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the salt, lemon juice and olive oil and toss with the beans and artichoke bottoms. Easy!

And finally, the fish:

Put all the marinade ingredients in your food processor and pulse until you get a smooth paste. Toss with the fish filets and set aside.

Heat the oil in a pot and add the vegetables. Stir and let cook over a low flame until the onions are translucent. Add the rice and the spices, and stir well.

Pour in the fish stock and turn the flame up to medium. Let simmer until the water is just above the level of the rice. Stir, then cover and reduce heat. Let cook for 30 minutes. 

Meanwhile, whisk the egg together with the water. In a large bowl, mix the flour with the breadcrumbs. Dip each fillet in the egg mixture, then the breadcrumb mixture. Deep fry until golden, then transfer to paper towels.

To serve, place some of the rice on each plate and top with the filets. Serve with lemon wedges.

So now that I've relived all these recipes, I can say that I do actually remember this meal, despite the weeks that have passed since I made it. It was a really nice piece of fish and it worked really well with the herbed rice. I liked the salad, too--it was nice and simple. The bread I could have done without. It was OK, but it had a cake-like texture that kind of clashed with the savory herbs. My kids didn't love it, either.

The date cookies were delicious. I ate way, way too many of them.

I actually bookmarked a lot of recipes from Libyan Food, and will probably try a few more. I'd say the food was a nice medium between Middle Eastern food and some typical African dishes. Simple, but with flair.

Next week: Liechtenstein


3 comments:

Chrissy Barua said...

Glad you're all feeling better! Those date cookies are so fantastic.

Becki Robins said...

Thanks! They were fantastic, definitely making those again!

Momble said...

I missed your blog, glad you are all feeling better!

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