It’s Not Only Soup!

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!

Sharba Libiya, perfect with a squeeze of lemon

Serves 4-6

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.

Saha Shraybitkum!

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Desert Rose says:

    Lovely post I must say -thanks.

    In cooking for a large family for many years I could consider myself in an expert in the field of Libyan Cuisine….It was also passed on to me by my mother who had researched it in the late 60’sand early 70’s as she was the Gourmet Club President (PWC) in Tripoli – Libya
    In your Libyan Sharba recipe chick peas ( garbanzo beans ) are not included ,was this omitted on purpose?
    Also chili pepper isn’t a spice used in the Libyan Cuisine but is so, in the American especially in the South ; Mexico etc.. Red cayenne pepper is what is used locally. I have nothing against what spice one chooses but when we give out our personal choice in recipes we should mention having done so ,in order to give our reader the correct facts
    I truly enjoy your introductions and presentations.
    Again I thank you and I hope you don’t take my comment personally .

    1. Thanks for your feed back. I did mention the chickpeas within the recipe, not as an ingredient. I omitted this because my entire family and many of my friends and neighbors usually do so, so I consider it an option. As for the pepper, I stand corrected. I just literally translated فلفل أحمرحار or filfil ahmar haar so I guess I was just “lost in translation” LOL! Great to hear about your mother, what an achievement! We definitely need a new club now, what do you think? I would love to collaborate with you (and your mother if possible) on my current research, as I am finding it difficult to get any good resources here apart from talking with people and visiting their kitchens. Thanks again.

      1. Desert Rose says:

        Thank you for your reply.
        I’d be more than happy to contribute..bit busy during Ramadan -but maybe after the Eid InshaAllhah.


  2. Hala says:

    Nice blog with nice pictures.
    If you don’t mind I would like to add few comments: I’m also an expert cook (passed on to me by my mother and grand-mother).

    First I would like to point out that this soup is originally from Tripoli; however, over the last decades it has become known as “Libyan soup” (I hope that you don’t get me wrong, I’m not a chauvinist. I just wanted to provide some background information regarding the origin of the soup, since it has a significant influence on the way in which it is prepared/cooked).

    I think that bypassing chickpeas in a Libyan soup shouldn’t be an option, at least not if you’re providing your readers with the true version.

    As for the spices, usually Tripolitanian cooks use a mixture of spices, known as bzaar, not just plain turmeric; the soup will be missing that “je ne sais quoi de Libyen” if you only use turmeric.

    I would also like to point out that parsley is the only herb, along with mint, that is used in the soup, not coriander like you mentioned as it’s sparsely used in traditional Tripolitanian dishes.

    I hope you do not take offense in what I have written; I simply wanted to pinpoint some important characteristics that are unique to this dish and without which this soup would no longer be considered a true Libyan one.


  3. Valerie says:

    Hello everyone!

    My grandparents were Maltese born in Tripoli and lived there for many years. My grandmother’s traditional cooking was amazing, to say the least, and something that I have been missing for many years since her passing. Although we have many of her recipes for dishes (rishda being my alltime favorite), there is something missing that is stopping us from recreating them.

    Nanny used to go to the store and buy huge containers of spices, then mix them up according to an all spice recipe in her head, and give small bottles of this mixture to everyone in the family. The secret to nanny’s cooking was her allspice, but there isn’t any left and no one knows exactly how to recreate it! (We think it contained tumeric, cumin, cinnamon, and chili powder and/or paprika)

    When my father and I were researching some Tripolitanean foods to make together we came upon this post and wondered if “bzaar” might be what we are looking for. If anyone has any information on how to make this mixture of spices, please comment here or email me directly – it would save our family tradition and make sure that Tripolitanean food could be enjoyed by generations to come!

    Thank you!

    1. It’s lovely to hear your story. My grandmother was a great culinary inspiration for me too. It could be very likely that the spice mix you are looking for is bzaar or hararat. Please bear with me and I’ll get you the exact ratios (though they usually differ from family to family.. so you may need to do some tweaking). I apologize for the delayed reply… but we were trying to survive a war so I’m sure you’ll understand 🙂

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