It’s Only Soup

A post on the We Are Food Facebook page yesterday about Libyan Soup got me thinking about why it is often considered a “national dish”. It is basic in its ingredients and it’s relatively new. Pasta and tomato paste were not introduced into Libya until the Italian occupation.  It’s not as “genuine” as couscous and Bazin are. I have heard many stories of people visiting Libya or eating at the homes of  Libyan ex-pat friends and falling in love with this soup. To me it seems like the classic Italian minestrone mutated into two new local dishes: Sharba Libiya and M’Bakabka. The Moroccan Harira is quite similar, though its consistency is closer to H’asa than Sharba.  My own little two year old, who absolutely refuses to eat anything that isn’t white (I hope that isn’t a sign of racism!) will lick her plate of Libyan Soup clean. It is the only dish that she will be willing to eat two days in a row. I personally find Sharba pleasant, but then again I’m not much of a soup person. I will only make it if we are having guests over during Ramadan, or as an occasional bowl of heart warming comfort food in the winter.

Curious to find out what the story is behind the infamous soup, I did a quick Google search and 35,000+ relevant entries that popped up were very unexpected. There is a variation posted by the well known British cookbook writer Delia Smith, and both The New York Times and The Guardian have featured Sharba Libiya recipes*. I read through some of the online recipes and was surprised by the use of pearl barley or couscous as an alterative to orzo (rice shaped pasta, also known as Lisan Asfour or “bird’s tongue”). The fact that turmeric was often omitted was shocking (except in the case where Libyan spice mix Hararat or B’zaar was used, turmeric would be included in the mix); and the addition of cinnamon seems odd to me as it is traditionally used in a group of dishes collectively known as M’Sagi (pasta, rice, or couscous with a thick onion, vegetable and lamb sauce spread over it). Chopped parsley or coriander, dried mint or fresh, the fine tuning of this humble broth always comes down to the cook’s personal taste.

During my little search I came across a befitting quote for this conundrum:

There is nothing like soup. It is by nature eccentric: no two are ever alike, unless of course you get your soup in a can. Laurie Colwin, “Home Cooking” (1988)

In any case, I was planning to post a Sharba recipe prior to Ramadan, but I think I have just confused myself a bit. Let me know what your version of Libyan Soup includes, and we will try to reach a consensus as to what the most popular rendition is. Post your thoughts below or leave a comment on the Facebook page.

*Delia Smith’s recipe for Libyan Soup with couscous  http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/type-of-dish/soups/libyan-soup-with-couscous.html

The New York Times article “In Libya, for Starters, It’s the Soup” Florence Fabricant, 4 Jan 2006  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A0DEFDD1130F937A35752C0A9609C8B63

The Guardian article “McDonald’s? Who needs it?” Gill Partington, 24 Oct 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/oct/24/recipes.foodanddrink1

6 Comments Add yours

  1. FreeQA Dawn says:

    Up with the soup
    down with wat?
    down with all those chilly peppers
    u dont like chillies?
    not them read ones no,
    but the green ones are alright?
    yeah, theyre a wounderful essence to the bakbooky
    but theyre hot
    only in the mouth, but down under theyre benign
    so uingredient 1 is green pepper
    yes, and add to that mashed garlic
    why mashed?
    cause back in teh dorm thats how we did bakbooky
    slice open a horn of green pepper
    ok…….
    then we grind a fass of garlic
    ok…….
    then we put both pepper and garlic in an empty bottle
    ok…….
    we add a liiiitle bit of water
    then….
    we shake it all about
    doesnt sound very classy
    but we’re men, we’re not supposed to be classy and etiquitik
    u cant even spell it can you?
    neither can you so lemme finish
    so right after we turn off the fire we added this mysterious mix and it tasted great..
    yeah i remember it was runny and we had to eat with bread
    u were there?
    course i was, i am you in the end,
    oh yeah, we forgor something
    what?
    we forgot to bring relativity to this topic… soup
    oh, i just thought i described how i is like me soup
    what… pepper hot and garlic stinky?
    theyre called spices you jahil, i like spices but not too hot
    ok ok, but we forgot summit else.
    what?
    we forgot to thank the writer of this article mate.
    we have have?
    yeah we have, we forgot to say thank you for the great article that is so libyan, femme and foody
    youre not very good with words are u?
    you reckon?? i guess i is not…
    well go on and thank her..
    …… thnak you
    u spelt it wrong
    sorry …… THANK YOU

  2. OK, where to begin, thank you for a) reading the article and b) contributing your thoughts with such style! Didn’t know whether to rap it our get my darbouka out, definitely adds some rhythm to the spice in the kitchen! Thanks for taking the time to write this, it really made my day!

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