International Cooking: Food from Libya

I generally quite like the cuisine of North Africa; there is often an interesting mix of flavors due to the proximity to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. So I was looking forward to cooking food from Libya this week.

Libya is located in North Africa between Algeria and Egypt, with the Mediterranean Sea to the north. It is the fourth-largest country in Africa and the Arab world.

Since the late Bronze Age, the region has been inhabited by Berbers. The Phoenicians had city-states and trading posts in the west while Greece established cities in the east. Eventually, the entire region became part of the Roman Empire, and Libya adopted Christianity.

During the 7th century, some time after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, invasions brought Islam to the area, which was followed by mass migration of Arabs. Today, Libya’s official religion is Islam.

Ottoman rule began in 1551 and continued until the Italo-Turkish war which resulted in Italy occupying Libya and establishing two colonies.

Libya gained independence as a kingdom in 1951, but became a republic in 1969 after a bloodless military coup initiated by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. He was often described as a dictator, and led for 42 years until he was overthrown and killed during the 2011 Libyan Civil War.

A second civil war began when two rival authorities claimed to govern Libya, and a permanent cease-fire was signed in 2020. A unity government currently has authority and is attempting to plan democratic elections, though this has been made difficult due to political rivalries.

What Do People Eat in Libya?

Libyan cuisine draws influences from the Berber people who initially inhabited the area, as well as Arab, Mediterranean, Ottoman, and Italian cuisines. Italian influence is particularly strong in the capital of Tripoli in the northern part of the country, but the southern region has more in common with Berber and Arab cuisine.

Main meals often include meat such as mutton or lamb. Chickpeas are a common vegetable protein but are often served in stews alongside meat.

Libyan dishes are often richly seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and coriander. Chilies are common too, often in the form of harissa, a hot sauce that can have a range of heat levels. Stews and sauces often contain lots of onion, and tomato, potato, and pumpkin are also popular ingredients.

One of the most common accompaniments to meals is couscous, but Libyans also enjoy pasta and various types of bread.

Alcohol is banned in Libya due to Sharia law, but some Libyans make a homemade spirit called Bokha which is often consumed with soft drinks.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Libyan dishes I didn’t make!

Sfinz (Fried Bread)

Sfinz (Fried Bread)

Sfinz is often served for breakfast, and it can be either sweet or savory. It’s made from a simple dough mixture that is pressed out into a circle and fried. You can either add an egg to fry on top during the cooking process, or leave it plain and serve it with honey. I chose the savory version.

I made the dough from flour, milk, water, olive oil, yeast, sugar, salt, and baking powder. The recipe said it’s best to leave it overnight, but I found that the dough had grown enough within about 2 hours so I didn’t leave it that long.

Next, I shaped the dough into balls and let them rest a little longer. Then I flattened the balls as much as I could, which was pretty difficult because the dough was very sticky, and fried them in oil.

If you are making plain sfinz, you can just fry them on both sides and that’s it. I did make a few this way. But when adding an egg, you first add the dough to the oil, and when it starts to puff up, you flip it and add the egg in the hollow. At least, that’s what is meant to happen. My dough was unwieldy to flip when not cooked yet since it was so sticky, and I didn’t get a very nice hollow for my egg. I actually thought my sfinz looked nicer after cutting than before so that’s the photo you get!

I thought these were super delicious! I only needed to add a little salt and pepper. The plain sfinz were good too with honey, but I think I prefer the egg version. I’d definitely consider making these again, but I think I would decrease the liquid a little in my dough to make it more manageable.

The recipe I used is from Libyan Food.

Rishta Kiskas (Pasta with Lamb Stew)

Rishta Kiskas (Pasta with Lamb Stew)

Rishta kiskas is traditionally made from homemade pasta topped with an onion sauce (and often with meat and chickpeas too). The pasta is formed into very thin noodles and steamed in a couscoussier. Since I don’t own a pasta machine or a couscoussier, I used Middle Eastern vermicelli which is a similar shape, and I boiled it in water. So this isn’t quite an authentic take on the recipe.

I started by cooking some chopped onion in oil with tomato paste, salt, black pepper, turmeric, cayenne pepper, ground ginger, and cinnamon. Then I added chunks of lamb, and when they were browned I added water and let everything simmer for a while.

Once the meat was cooked, I added some chickpeas that I had cooked separately, as well as sliced onions, chopped potatoes, and carrot (the recipe called for pumpkin but I didn’t want to buy it when I had a lot of carrots to use up). I actually think I messed up a bit here, but the recipe was not clear so I’m unsure. I think the meat and potatoes were meant to be separate from the onion/chickpea sauce, but the way the recipe was written, it sounded like you were just adding everything to the same sauce. At the end, it said to put the sauce over the pasta and top with the lamb mixture—unless it meant to take some of the sauce from the lamb for the sauce part. I’m just not sure!

Either way, this still tasted pretty good. I’d love to try making the pasta from scratch one day when I have the right equipment.

The recipe I used is from Libyan Food.

Bazeen (Steamed Barley Bread)

Bazeen (Steamed Barley Bread)

I thought this sounded like a unique dish and it seemed popular according to Libyans on Reddit. The barley ‘bread’ is more like a firm porridge. You cook barley flour with water until it makes a stiff dough, and then you push that into shape to make the bread. Bazeen can be served with a variety of stews, and boiled eggs are a common addition (so of course I had to include them).

I started by sautéing some onion, jalapeño, and fenugreek seeds in olive oil. Then I added chunks of lamb, followed by turmeric, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper, garlic, and tomato paste. After a few minutes, I covered everything with water and let it cook until the lamb was nearly tender. Then I added some potato chunks and once they were cooked through, the stew was ready.

For the bazeen itself, I first had to make barley flour! I can’t buy it easily but I did already have pearly barley, and I read that you can just grind it up in a blender to make flour. So that’s what I did. It wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, but I did manage to get enough flour (after grinding multiple times and sifting out the bigger pieces) to make the small bazeen I was aiming for.

I brought some water to a boil in a saucepan and added salt. Then I poured in the barley flour and pushed it inwards to make an island in the middle. I stuck a wooden spoon in the center and was meant to just leave it, with the water bubbling up around the edges and in the center. I think this was meant to ensure the flour gradually gets incorporated into the water. Maybe it would have worked if I’d been using the much larger amount of ingredients called for in the recipe. But my dry flour was just sitting there and the water seemed to be evaporating (the recipe said not to cover the pot). So I went against the directions and stirred. The flour mixture was catching on the bottom of the pot so it’s a good thing I stirred when I did. I ended up adding more water because the pot was way too dry, but eventually, I did get the kind of dough consistency I was looking for. Mine was probably a bit softer than it should have been.

I kneaded the dough but it was too sticky to form into a dome as I was supposed to. So what I did was grease a small bowl and push the dough in, then flip it upside down to get my bazeen shape. The top was supposed to be more domed but I think this was okay for a first attempt.

I surrounded the bazeen with some of my lamb stew and a boiled egg, and then it was ready to serve. The stew itself was delicious, but the bazeen was just like a kind of strange barley porridge. I do think it was meant to be harder than mine was; this is something I’d probably have to try many times to get right.

The recipe I used is from Libyan Food.

Mbatan (Fried Stuffed Potatoes Slices)

Mbatan (Fried Stuffed Potatoes Slices)

Mbatan drew my attention instantly—it’s an appetizer made by filling potato slices with a meat mixture and frying them. I thought it sounded interesting and, most importantly, delicious!

First, I cooked the meat mixture. I cooked some ground beef in butter, then added onion, garlic, jalapeño, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, and ground ginger. After another minute or so I added some water and let everything simmer for a while. Towards the end, I added chopped parsley. After letting the mixture cool slightly, I stirred in some beaten eg and breadcrumbs.

Next, I cut the potato slices. It’s a little bit like cutting hasselback potatoes, except every second cut should go all the way through. So you end up with two slices that are still joined at the bottom. I filled the gap with some of the meat mixture. This wasn’t as fiddly as I first assumed it would be; I thought the potato might be fragile and I’d have to be careful not to separate the slices accidentally. But they held together pretty well. This is what my mbatan looked like right after stuffing:

Mbatan before frying

Then I rolled the exposed filling in flour and breadcrumbs and coated the whole thing in beaten egg before deep frying.

These were amazing! The filling tasted really good. I think that coating it in flour and breadcrumbs helped protect it from the hot oil so that it didn’t dry out. The outside of the potato was crispy while the inside was still moist and delicious.

I only cut one potato so I had some of the meat mixture left over. It went really well with rice and some chopped tomato.

The recipe I used is from Libyan Food.

Lamb with Couscous and Onions

Lamb with Couscous and Onions

Couscous is Libya’s national dish, so of course I had to include it. I asked how it is often served in the Libyan subreddit and was told it’s common to have it with lamb stew. Even better, I was given a link to a recipe!

I started by cooking some onion in olive oil, followed by a few pieces of lamb. I seasoned them with turmeric, cayenne pepper, salt, and tomato paste, then added water a few minutes later.

While that was cooking, I was meant to start steaming onion slices on top of the pot with the lamb. Then they are combined with some of the sauce from the lamb, baharat (a popular Middle Eastern spice blend), and ghee and cooked further. I ended up skipping the steaming step since I don’t have a steamer that can sit on a pot like that. I just cooked them on low heat in a little oil before combining with the other ingredients and continuing with the recipe. I was also meant to add chickpeas here but I’d completely forgotten I needed them for this recipe and since I only had dry chickpeas, I didn’t have time to prepare them by the time I knew I needed them.

I added some carrot pieces to the lamb mixture, which was again meant to be pumpkin. I honestly prefer carrot and can only hope this wasn’t meant to be a crucial part of the dish!

Traditionally, Libyans steam their couscous, but I followed the package directions for mine. That involved boiling water, stirring in the couscous, and leaving it to sit for a few minutes.

I mixed my prepared couscous with a little cinnamon and orange blossom water. Then I served it topped with some of the onion sauce, followed by the lamb, then more onion sauce.

This tasted really good. It turns out I’m a pretty big fan of the spices used in Libyan cooking!

The recipe is by Dania’s Cuisine on TikTok.

  • Shakshuka – this is something I’ve made before during this challenge (for Israel and for Algeria) but I think it actually originated in Tunisia, so I want to avoid making it again until then. It happens to be a popular dish in many countries. The exact ingredients vary widely, but it’s essentially eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. In Libya, it is common to include dried lamb or beef.
  • Osban – sausage stuffed with a mixture of rice, herbs, lamb, and liver with a variety of spices.
  • Ghoriba – shortbread-type cookies, usually made from almond flour and served with tea or coffee.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week! The mbatan was my favorite food from Libya; I loved the idea of stuffing the potato slices and the filling had such great flavor.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Liechtenstein.

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