Barley forms the staple grain, along with durum wheat (hard wheat which is made into semolina) in the western region of Libya for both the Bedouin Arabs and the Amazigh Berbers. Barley is usually lightly toasted before being milled into flour used to make an array of pastes, dough and bread. Barley porridge, called bazeen when savory and aseeda when sweet, has played an important role in the Libyan diet as its components are compact and easy to make, perfect for the nomadic desert Tuareg and the shepherds of the central semi-arid zone. The earliest record of aseeda dates back to the tenth century where it was observed to be eaten throughout Andalusia and North Africa. Aseeda can also be found as part of the repetoir of the Sahel countries of Africa and the Gulf countries of Arabia.
Mediterranean food historian, Clifford Wright, writes of one of the earliest accounts of the aseeda making process in the Maghreb:
“cAṣīda was known in the Rif, the mountainous region along the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where flour made from lightly grilled barley was used. The famous Arab explorer Ḥasan al-Wazan, who was known as Leo Africanus (c. 1465-1550) in the West, who journeyed into Africa, gives a recipe: Boil water in a large pot, add the barley flour, stirring with a stick. Pour the gruel into a plate and in the center make a small s hallow where one puts the argan seed oil.”
North African explorer, George F. Lyons* also provides us with directions for preparing barley porridge:
“Bazeen (which in Fezzan is called Aseeda) is the most common food, as being the easiest prepared. It is made of the flour of any grain (Bishna and Barley are mostly used near Tripoli) in the following manner. A large pot, of copper or iron, is placed on the fire, with a little water in it, which is suffered to boil. Flour is then thrown in, until it acquires the consistency of dough, when it is stirred well about with a large stick (water being occasionally added, if necessary,) until it is quite thick, and begins to assume the appearance of a pudding, when it is taken out, and placed in a bowl. After being beat into a circular shape, and having a hole made in the centre, gravy, oil, butter, or grease, is poured on it, and it is then ready for eating, which is done by pinching pieces out with the right hand, and kneading them with the grease until they assume the appearance of thick paste. Should there be no gravy or grease to be procured, a little flour mixed with hot water is used instead of it. It requires much strength of arm to make bazeen properly, as the stick is wielded by both hands, and the pot is confined on the fire by having a forked piece of wood placed against it, on which the woman kneels while preparing the mess.” Lyons (c. 1795–1832)
Aseeda is traditionally made for breakfast on the prophet Mohammed’s birthday (pbuh), after the festival of lanterns (youm al gindeel) on the eve of this holy event. Aseeda is also made on the seventh day of the birth of a baby (sbou’u). It is traditionally made with barley flour but white refined wheat flour has taken its place in parts of the coastal Eastern region and in urban Tripoli, where refined flour was first introduced from Europe and considered to be the staple of the privileged due to its price and “purity”. I find that white flour tends to make a sticky, tacky dough that lacks the earthy flavor of barley.
Time: 30-40 mins
1 cup barley flour (alternatively wholewheat or white flour)
2 cups boiling water
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
Boil water with oil and salt in a medium-large pan.
Reserve half of the water – 1 cup.
Sift the flour into the water remaining in the pan on low heat and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth (you can also do this on the counter if you find it difficult to work on the stovetop). This is the tricky part of the dish, as lumps tend to form when the flour is added to the water. It will take a few tries before you make your first truly smooth dough. An alternative I use is to boil the water in an electric kettle or in a separate pan. Having sifted the flour into the cooking pan I gradually add one cup of water to the flour while vigorously stirring (reversing the process). I find that this prevents the formation of lumps. This process is even more difficult using white wheat flour, as it has I higher gluten content and tends to lump more easily.
Add the remaining water, a little at a time, and use the wooden spoon to lift the dough allowing the water to flow beneath it and form a buffer from the heat.
Cover with a lid and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes until the water is completely absorbed. It’s important not to skip this part as this cooks the flour and prevents bloating after eating this wholegrain flour.
Once the water has evaporated stir with the spoon over low heat until the paste comes together to form one lump.
Grease a serving bowl with oil. Turn the dough into the bowl and quickly shape it, with greased hands, into a hemisphere, taking care is it will be hot.
Make a small well in the top and pour on the topping of your choice (date syrup and olive oil or honey and butter).
Aseeda is eaten communal in one bowl, using the fingers to pull off bits of dough and dipping it into the fat and sugar, working them into the paste with the fingers before eating in a mouthful.
* NARRATIVE OF TRAVELS IN NORTHERN AFRICA IN THE YEARS 1818-19 AND 1820: Captain George Francis Lyon (1795–1832) was an Arctic and African explorer and British Naval Officer. He is known for his descriptive journals and his genuine interest in the indigenous people of the countries he visited. In 1818 he was sent on an expedition to locate Timbuktu and started his journey from Tripoli reaching as far as Murzuk, only to return to Tripoli having failed at his mission. His bad luck has left us with an invaluable resource on the customs and food fo the Libyan people.