A heated discussion about a previous post titled “It’s Only Soup” ended with a somewhat clearer picture of what Libyan soup consists of, but I am still no closer to revealing the origins of this elusive broth. A suggestion that tomatoes were around since the time of the Romans proved untrue since tomatoes were first discovered in the Americas and brought back to the Old World by the Spaniards in the late 1400’s. Tomato paste wasn’t manufactured until the late 1800’s, although homemade versions existed before then. So it is likely that my previous statement that Libyans did not know tomato paste until the post-1911 Italian colonization, is incorrect. But forget all that. It is good soup and it is a Ramadan necessity. As Peter Stephenson, a British reader who was posted in Libya in the late 60’s puts it: IT’S NOT “ONLY SOUP” IT’S SOMETHING SPECIAL. Touché.
After much musing and pondering, I decided that the only way to be fair about this is to post my personal version of Sharba Libiya, the one I have made at least once a month for the past 5 years. This is Libyan soup in its simplest form, and hopefully it’s most authentic. I will point to some variations of my recipe as I go along.
A Minimalist’s Sharba Libiya Recipe
I write this under the “less is more” motto of Mies van der Rohe (architects!). This is the basis, the least you can put into a Libyan soup for it to be hearty and delicious. What you wish to add to it is totally up to you!
Preparation time 10 min
Cooking time 1 hour
250g lamb, on the bone and trimmed of fat
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely minced
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tsp red cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp tomato paste
1-11/2 liters of water
1/2 cup orzo pasta
1/2 cup chopped parsley or coriander
1 tbsp crushed dried mint
Remove the lamb meat from the bone and dice into small cubes (about 1 cm) and reserve one of the bones, discarding the rest. Alternatively you could ask your butcher to do this for you.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot on medium-high flame. Once the oil is hot (the surface will start to ripple) add the onions. Sauté for a few minutes until they start to pale. Do not caramelize.
Add the lamb and stir occasionally, allowing it to sear on all sides.
Add the spices and salt, stirring well, coating the diced meat completely. You may also add ground coriander and/or ground caraway (but I usually don’t). Reduce the heat to low so as not to burn the spices. (Chickpeas are often added at this stage too, your choice!)
Add the tomato paste, again stirring to coat. Add about a liter of water, stirring well to help the tomato paste dissolve. Bring the heat up to high and cover the pot.
Once the soup has reached a rolling boil, reduce the heat so that it is just simmering. Leave it to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally to prevent the meat from sticking to the bottom. You may also add warm water, a 1/4 cup at a time if the soup reduces greatly.
About 15 minutes before serving add the orzo pasta. Bring the heat up slightly to let it boil for about ten minutes, occasionally scrapping up any pasta that sticks to the base of the pot.
Remove from heat. Stir in the parsley (some people like to add this at the beginning of the cooking process. I feel it gives a much fresher flavor added at the end). Sprinkle the mint over the surface. Let it rest for a few minutes.
Serve hot with bread and lemon wedges.