Libyans will tell you that their region was always too poor to have developed a cuisine. Like much of the cooking in Egypt, everything appears vaguely familiar, from other regions. The Italian influence is strong, especially in restaurants, and Libyans eat lots of pasta. Whether this was the result of the Italian occupation or an addition to a pre-existing substratum of macaroni cookery, as I believe to be the case in neighboring Tunisia, is uncertain.
Contemporary Libya can be divided into the historical regions of Tripolitania to the west and Cyrenaica to the east. Sirte, in the middle, could be considered the "couscous line" of North Africa. That means, to the west of this line couscous is a staple food and the people eat couscous from here all the way to the shores of the Atlantic, while to the east of the line, to the Suez, couscous is occasionally eaten, but is not a staple food. Libyans living to the east of the line eat mostly Egyptian-style food, although their olive oil consumption today is the highest in the world, at seventy grams a day, about twice that of the Italians.
If any dish can be considered a "national" dish, it is either bazīn or shūrbat Libiyya. Bazīn is an old preparation, a kind of polenta made with semolina and water and sometimes yeast, found along the southern Tunisian and Libyan littoral. It is related to the simple meal of barley flour, olive oil, and water called basīssa, known since medieval times by people in North Africa. This was a preparation that the fourteenth-century philosopher Ibn Khaldūn called the "first food" of Ifriqiya (Tunisia) in his Prologomena. The dish can also be made with fish. Bazīn is often made for the Eid al-Kabir, the holiday feast celebrating the sacrifice of Abraham, in the Sfax and Sousse region of Tunisia. This recipe was given to me by Professor Lisa Anderson, a scholar of modern Libya at Columbia University, who tells me that it "summarizes Libyan cuisine, such as it is." Shūrba means "soup," and this is Libyan-style soup.
Yield: Makes 4 servings
Preparation Time: 1:45 hours
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon samna (clarified butter)
1 large onion, finely chopped or grated
1 pound boneless beef chuck, trimmed of fat and cubed
6 very ripe plum tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
5 cups water
1/2 cup cooked chickpeas, drained
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (about 1/2 bunch parsley)
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon bzar (see Note)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pastina (soup pasta)
1 teaspoon dried mint
1. In a medium-size casserole, heat the olive oil with the samna over medium-high heat, then cook the onion, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beef and cook on all sides until brown, 2 to 4 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, the tomato paste dissolved in 1 cup of the water, the chickpeas, parsley, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, bzar, and salt and cook for 10 minutes. Add the remaining 4 cups water and cook, covered, until the meat is tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Add the pasta and cook, uncovered, until done, about 10 minutes. Just before serving stir in the mint.
The Libyan spice mix known as bzar is usually made of equal parts of black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric (or zedoary (Curcurma zedoria) or galangale), ground ginger, and a smaller part cumin. Mix together a 1/4 teaspoon each of black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cumin to make the bzar for this recipe. If making a larger quantity, use all the spices mentioned.