At sunset every day, during the holy month of Ramadan, the Sofra is the magnet that pulls family members together. Mom and the older girls emerge from the kitchen; Dad comes home from mindlessly roaming the street – avoiding his stressed out wife; the zombie-like teenagers are freed from the trance of their mobile phones and tablets; the little ones drop their toys and run inside; and married children – with their spouses and grandchildren in tow, ring the doorbell. Nothing has the power of drawing a family together, no excuses – no questions asked, as the Ramadan Sofra.
For those of you who don’t know, the Sofra is both a dining surface and the food upon it. I say dining surface because it’s not necessarily a table. It could be as basic as a tablecloth laid on the floor. Or a large circular metal tray (usually 60-90 cm wide) set on top of a low wooden table. And when Eid comes round, the Sofra becomes the baking tray for all those glorious sweets and pastries! So, Sofra = food, Sofra = dining table, Sofra = serving tray, and Sofra=baking tray, confused yet?!
Now the choice of eating seated on the floor or at the dining table, is really a lifestyle preference. It usually has little to do with social status or wealth. Many royal families in the Arab Gulf region prefer to have iftar banquets on the floor. Most middle class Libyans prefer to eat seated at a dining table. It’s only when you are really poor that you are left without choice. And sometimes it’s the food being served that decides for you, because I cannot imagine myself eating Bazeen at a table with a spoon! (Learn more about Libyan eating etiquette here.)
The Sofra is approached sequentially during Ramadan, in something of a ritual that starts and ends in prayer. It can be broken down into stages based on the order in which food is served :
Iftar is initiated by the Maghreb Adan (Call for prayer).
@8:20 pm The Break-fast Sofra is presented carrying milk, dates and other sweet bits to end your fast and sustain you through prayer. The prophet Mohammed had a habit of breaking his fast with three dates and a cup of milk. Dates are preferably eaten in odd numbers: 3, 5, 7 etc.
Maghreb Prayer (at home or in the mosque)
@8:30 pm The Main Sofra is presented. This is the main event that the whole day’s activities have culminated into – the climax if you will!
Cleanup – back in the kitchen!
@9:00 pm The Tea Sofra is presented loaded with coffee, tea, fruit, nuts and pastries. So soon you say! Unlike our brothers and sisters in the Levant who take pleasure in sitting at the dinner table all night, Libyans eat at lightning speed! I’m sure this is some sort of Darwinian characteristic, a survival instinct developed from competing for food against ten or more siblings! (Although the average number of kids in a modern Libyan family is about three, the competition continues till this day!)
@10:00 pm Isha Adan, the final call to prayer for the day brings the Sofra to an end.
(times are approximate based on 2016, which holds the longest fasting hours as Ramadan falls during summer solstice this year )
But that doesn’t mean the eating has ended! There are a lot more bites to grab when you’re out and about through the night, to sustain you until Suhoor.
The central component of this Sofra is Sharba Libiya or simply Libyan Soup. This is the staple, the mainstay eaten by rich and poor alike. The lighter cousin of the thick Moroccan Harira, this broth is just as bold and flavorsome, and probably more appealing to a broader palate. This belly warming soup is the perfect introduction to the empty stomach. You can read more about our national dish which proudly carries our name here and here.
Next in importance comes bread. Plain bread, baguettes from the bakery, barley or semolina flat breads baked at home, sumptuous stuffed buns or mini pizzas, the choices are endless. How else would you mop up the minty tomato broth from your bowl, leaving a clean plate for your next course!
My late uncle’s wife would always say “لازم الرقيق باش تعدي بيه الشربة” . Now bread is good, but to enjoyably “pass through the soup you need the help of the dainty” or Rageeg as some locals call them – basically appetizers or finger food.
Apart from bread buns stuffed with cheese, spinach, minced meat or tuna, and the mini pizzas of our Italian heritage, other common “dainty” bits are dolma, borek and imbatin.
Dolma, as they are known in Turkish, are an endless array of seasonal vegetables stuffed with fragrantly spiced rice and meat, and cooked in broth. They are also known by the Arabic name Mahshi (meaning stuffed). You can read more about the origins of Libyan Dolma (and try out my recipe too!) on this page here.
Borek, also of Turkish origin, are wonderful savory pastries (or pasties) with an outer shell of Malsouka (similar to springroll sheets), phyllo or puff pastry. What you put in them is left to your imagination, but you’ll often find them filled with keema (mince meat), potato puree or simply a fried egg (Tunisian style). To add more heat you can serve them with a dipping bowl of harissa.
Imbatin (meaning padded) is something of a Libyan specialty, it is usually made with kofta mince meat mix, sandwiched (or padded) between two slices of potato, which is then breaded and fried. Other common versions are made with cauliflower or egg, only this time the meat envelops (or pads) the core ingredient, creating something similar to a Scotch Egg.
Most people would stop here, with the shrunk belly from the day’s fast not able to carry more than a bowl of soup and a few appetizers. Other families also offer a main course which could be anything from Berber Couscous dishes, to Turkish Pilafs or Italian Lasagna. From here really, it is left to the mother’s physical stamina, and the father’s economic ability (although these days Libyan women are both bread-winners and bread-bakers!) as to how elaborate and diverse the dishes are.
What are some of your Ramadan Sofra essentials in your home or country? I would love to hear about your traditions!