Through my endless readings and observations in Libyan Food Culture since first starting the We Are Food project in 2009, I find myself grouping Libyan recipes into three major categories, Hand – Spoon – Fork, or food which would require one of these three as the main eating utensil.
From the very humble diet of the indigenous Berbers, prepared and eaten by hand, Libyan cooking evolved as a result of two benchmark changes in its history: the introduction of the spoon by the Ottoman Turks and later the fork by the colonial Italians. These eating utensils mirror a major change in the types of food cooked and eaten by Libyans today. Who would have thought that something as simple as a spoon and fork would forever change the way a nation eats!
HAND: From the dawn of Libya’s history, the indigenous Berber people, who are believed to have occupied this country as far back as 10,000 BC, were known for their humble diet. Their pantry was stocked with little more than grains (barley and hard wheat(semolina)), meat and fat (namely lamb and olive oil), and other staples such as milk, figs, dates and wild herbs foraged from the region. Preserved or dried fruit, meat and grains were stored in elaborate storage castles – the granaries of Kabaw and Gaser al Hajj. Cooking methods were simple, and mostly done outdoors on an open fire. Meals were served in communal bowls and eaten by hand, and basic bread baked on ashes or open flames. This diet remained largely untouched up until the Islamic conquest, and indeed many recipes have been preserved till this day. The most famous of these are aseeda and bazeen, a sweet and savoury variation of barley porridge.
SPOON: The early Islamic conquests brought with it a dietary code of conduct on hygiene, eating manners and prohibited foods (halal and haram), but it wasn’t until the Ottoman conquest of Tripoli in 1551, that a marked change was brought about to the dietary composition of local food. This was enabled by the introduction of the spoon as an eating utensil (rather than for cooking or serving). It is clear that the Turks were the first to introduce the spoon to Libya as the common household name for it “kasheek”, is a derivative of the Turkish kaşık, rather than the Arabic ملعقة mila’aqa. At this time we see an introduction of rice as a staple, and a more elaborate use of spices. Food is presented on low wooden tables in elaborate sofras (large round engraved trays), rather than being eaten directly off the floor. There is no specific dining area, rather these portable tables are laid in the sitting area promptly before a meal and swiftly carried away at the end. Such delicacies as muhallabia would be unthinkable without a spoon to eat them with. The urbanization of many cities lead to the creation of central ovens to bake home-made bread, meat dishes and stews.
FORK: The modern Libyan cooking style is very heavily influenced by the colonial Italians (1911-1942) and their greatest legacy was the forchetta (or fork) which is the common name used throughout Libya (vs. شوكة showka in Arabic). Many pasta factories were established in Tripoli and Benghazi, and this became the new staple of the Libyan kitchen (or kujina, a derivative of the Italian cucina). Before this time there was no space dedicated for cooking inside the house, and indeed dining rooms furnished with dining tables and chairs have only become common place as a necessity for eating spaghetti with the essential fork! The advent of iceboxes meant that the pantry was able to widely increase in variety. Bread was mass produced at bakeries, with the light fluffy long baguettes and panino (banina colloquial Libyan) made from farina (white wheat flour) becoming the most popular staple, as they are perceived as superior to the dense flat barley and semolina breads of our ancestors.
To many of my local readers Hand, Spoon and Fork may seem like an oversimplified way to present a rich cultural heritage. Indeed the modern Libyan diet is a representation of a much wider range of foreign influences, be it Ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, or Islamic, in addition to the Ottoman and Italian. But just looking back at our heirloom recipes you will find that they will each fall easily into one of these categories.
The Maghreb spanning from Libya in the East to Morocco in the West have very different cooking styles despite the similarities in pantry staples and Berber roots. Morocco was not occupied by the Ottoman Turks so has largely remained unaffected by this cuisine, rather being more influenced by the kitchens of Spanish Andalusia. Rice as a staple did not reach the Western edge of the MENA region. Libya, unlike its Francophone North African neighbors, was the only country in the region to be occupied by the Italians in the early 1900’s. In Libya you will find a very strong cafe culture, with shots of espresso being the morning norm. Many of our modern dishes center around the use of pasta which is scarcely used in local , Algerian or Tunisian dishes, and virtually non-existent in Morocco.
And so Hand * Spoon * Fork does not simply represent the evolution of the Libyan kitchen, it is also a representation of a culinary style unique to that of the rest of North Africa.