As predicted, President Donald Trump’s travel ban is back on thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, albeit this time in a modified version. So now the White House is hating on only some Muslims. Those with a bona fide” tie to the United States are cool — translation: we like you if you can help us or pay us.
So it’s time once again to explore the culinary wonders of these countries. This time, we travel to Libya, which was once the wealthiest, most stable country in Africa. Its Mediterranean coastline and strategic location next to Egypt have made Libya irresistible to outsiders, who controlled it from the Bronze Age to independence in 1951. In between, it was ruled by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Spanish, Ottoman Turks and, in the early 20th century, Italy.
As is the case with many African nations, Libyan cuisine is influenced by all of these occupying cultures. There is an especially strong Italian influence, including the use of pasta, because at one point nearly 20 percent of the population was Italian settlers.
There are several distinct regional cuisines — Shargawi (eastern Libyan), Gharbawi (western Libyan), Amazigi (food of Berber mountain tribes), southern Libyan cuisine and cuisine imported from the Arab world. Couscous, which is popular throughout North Africa, is the national dish here, and tagines (stews, slowly cooked in a cone-shaped earthenware pot) are popular too. And although the long coastline provides an abundance of fish, lamb and chicken remain the most popular proteins.
Ancient foods are still enjoyed, with olive oil, dates, grains and milk — all ancient foods that have sustained Berber tribes since prehistory — still the most important ingredients. Bazin (or bazeen) is an ancient bread similar to Sudanese jelly bread. Water, barley flour and salt are boiled, then beaten with a special stick (magraf) to activate the gluten. The dough is set aside to harden, then steamed or baked into a hard paste and served like an island in the middle of a tomatoey stew.
Asida is a similar dumpling, served with ghee, honey and a thick date syrup called rub. Another Berber dish, bsisa, is made from a mixture of toasted grains ground with fenugreek, anise, cumin and sugar, which is then reconstituted with milk or water, then eaten with dates and figs. All of these easily transportable foods make perfect sense in a nomadic, pastoral culture. The Tuareg, a Saharan Berber tribe known as “the blue people” because of the indigo-dyed clothing that stains their skin, use the hot sand to cook their foods. Simple breads, whole eggs and potatoes are buried after first heating the sand with fire.
Since Libya is a Muslim nation, Ramadan is the season for many of the country’s favorite dishes. Soup is the preferred dish throughout the monthlong holiday, with each region having special variations made with lamb, chicken or fish. Harissa — which simply means paste — is different throughout North Africa, but in Libya it is a spicy red chile condiment served with everything from tagines to tuna sandwiches. Herby salads with grilled or pickled vegetables and fruits are common accompaniments, and you find myriad variations made with cucumber, tomato, yogurt, carrots and local sour apples.
Teatime is an important daily ritual throughout Libya. Family and friends gather to eat small pastries and sip unusually thick black tea served in three specific courses. The tea is boiled for 10 to 15 minutes, then sweetened and boiled again before being poured back and forth between two mugs at a great height to create a foaming head, and then served in tiny glasses. A second round is served, sometimes with added mint, and in the third round, glasses are filled with peanuts or almonds before being topped with tea.
There are restaurants throughout Libya, but they are frequented mainly by tourists. In general, most Libyans eat at home, seated on cushions at low tables. Much of the cuisine is eaten by hand or with bread. Spoons and forks are relatively recent additions to the table, the former having been introduced by the Ottomans, the latter by Italians.
Though foreign influence is strong in Libya’s cuisine, there has always been an indigenous resistance movement against occupiers. The Libyans remained colonized until after Italy dragged the region into World War II in support of its German allies. Their defeat left the region in Allied control, and in 1947 Italy gave up all claims.
The United Kingdom of Libya declared independence in 1951, ruled by the country’s only monarch, King Idris I. (Gotta like the optimism of naming yourself “the First.”) In 1959 substantial oil reserves were discovered, and one of the poorest countries in the world suddenly became incredibly wealthy. But instead of using the money to build Libya’s economy, King Idris’ government was riddled with corruption scandals, and that led to the 1969 coup staged by the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council under the leadership of — ta-da! — Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi established the Libyan Arab Republic, directing government funds to public programs like free education and free health care. The country’s per capita income rose to one of the highest in Africa, which sounds pretty good — except the wealth was again concentrated among the ruling elite. Gaddafi’s support of rebel movements and terrorist groups, invasions of neighboring countries and strained relations with Western nations (including the furor over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland) fueled opposition, leading to United Nations sanctions, which were eventually lifted. Meanwhile, the regime imposed medieval Islamic purification laws and campaigns of violence against dissidents, dubbed “the Green Terror,” resulting in mass incarcerations, assassinations (even overseas) and the world’s most censored press. These erratic policies and the neighboring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (part of the Arab Spring) fueled a civil war, and in 2011 the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council — backed by NATO forces — overthrew Gaddafi’s government and liberated Libya.
Unfortunately, four decades of autocratic rule had left no governmental infrastructure, providing a perfect nest for Islamic extremism. Now, multiple factions are fighting for control. Making matters worse, Libya is on the central migration route for African refugees heading to Europe, and therefore a prime target for human trafficking. In all respects, Libya is now a completely failed state.
But Libyans in the diaspora continue to celebrate their heritage and hold out hope of returning to what was once a beautiful nation. There are relatively few Libyan communities in the U.S., but a substantial community exists in the U.K. Unfortunately, its largest community, in Manchester, has long been a worrisome hotbed of extremist recruitment specifically targeting those of Libyan descent. Those fears were realized at the recent Ariana Grande concert. It’s a tragic culmination of centuries of tragic events. And it leaves me, as do most of the tales of these travel ban countries, feeling hopeless and helpless. My best defense is to learn as much as I can about these cultures and celebrate them in my kitchen. It does the victims of these atrocities little good, I know. But recognizing the humanity in these regions is all I’ve got. Follow me, won’t you, into the kitchen, and cook up some compassion.
Lamb Stew with Pumpkin and Chickpeas
Soups and stews are beloved elements of Libyan cuisine, and this one is particularly mouthwatering. It calls for shaiba, which is a dried lichen, also known as dagad phool in Indian cuisine. You can leave it out, but it’s readily available on the Internet, and if you’re up for a field trip, you can find it in Indian markets.
¼ cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
10 whole cloves
5 bay leaves
3 cinnamon sticks
1-inch ginger root, grated
3 to 4 shaiba leaves
1 pound cubed lamb meat
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 pound fresh pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cubed to 2 inches
15-ounce can chickpeas, drained
1 cup golden raisins
Sea salt to taste
1. In a large Dutch oven or stewpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, spices and lamb, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft. Add tomato and water as needed to cover, and bring to a boil. At the boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook on low heat for 1 hour.
2. Remove lid, add pumpkin, chickpeas and raisins, and simmer another 30 minutes, until pumpkin is tender. Season with salt to taste, and serve. (You may prefer to fish out the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and shaiba — I prefer to eat around them.)
Magroodh (Date-Filled Semolina Cookie)
Libyans love their sweets, and this cookie is a particular favorite. Serve it at teatime to good, thoughtful, compassionate friends.
Ingredients (For the dough)
3 cups semolina
1 cup all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon orange-flower or rose water
1 to 2 cups warm water
Ingredients (For the filling)
1½ pounds date paste (store-bought or homemade by pulverizing pitted dates in a food processor)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons nutmeg
½ cup sesame seeds, toasted
Olive oil as needed
Ingredients (For the syrup)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Zest and juice of 1 large lemon
3 tablespoons orange-flower or rose water
2 tablespoons honey
1. Mix together semolina, flour, baking powder and oil, then cover and set aside for 1 hour.
2. Meanwhile, make the filling. Mix together date paste, spices and sesame seeds, adding oil a little at a time as needed to create a smooth mixture that holds its shape. Divide the paste into four equal portions and roll each into a log about 1-inch in diameter.
3. Add to the semolina dough the flower water and enough water to create a firm dough that holds its shape. Divide this dough into four equal portions and roll each into a log the same length as the date logs.
4. Preheat oven to 400°. Press in a lengthwise trench down the center of each dough log, and nestle a date log into it. Press and mold the dough around the date log until it is completely concealed. Slice inch-thick cookies off the logs at an angle, and place them on a cookie sheet. Bake until lightly golden, about 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, make the syrup. Combine all syrup ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and cool.
6. Drizzle syrup over the baked cookies, a little at a time, letting it soak in slowly. Sprinkle with more toasted sesame seeds before serving with foaming tea or Arabic coffee.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.