Location: North Africa
Population: 7 million
Geography: A mostly flat desert nation on the Mediterranean
Signature flavours: Mutton, fenugreek, tomato, date, fig, citrus, nuts, olive oil
Compared with its North African neighbours Tunisia, Egypt, and nearby Morocco, Libyan cuisine was more of a mystery for Eric when he headed into this assignment. One of the first things he learned was the prevalence of mutton in the region. He was thrilled, since on our last trip Toronto, we stopped at the inimitable King’s Cafe to stock up on seitan-based “meats,” including mutton. Mutton was to be his Libyan centrepiece, and he built a menu around it.
Bazin with Mutton Stew: Curried mutton with onion, tomato, chilli pepper, hardboiled eggs, and potato, spiced with fenugreek and turmeric, and served with a barley pap called bazin.
Prep and cooking time: 75 min
Basal Mahshi: Onions stuffed with ground beef (soy in our case) flavoured with garlic, tomato, fenugreek, and paprika.
Prep and cooking time: 75 min
Fennel and Kohlrabi Salad: A fresh salad with crunchy pieces of fennel and kohlrabi, marinated in a simple dressing of lemon juice and salt.
Prep and cooking time: 15 min plus 2 hours marinating time
Halva d’Tmar: Figs, walnuts, dates, and honey pressed into a square and sprinkled with orange blossom water, aniseed, and coriander seed.
Prep and cooking time: 20 min (and chilled overnight)
Libyan Tea: Looseleaf black tea and freshly roasted peanuts, served sweet.
Prep and cooking time: 10 min
The Shopping List
The seitan mutton came from King’s Cafe in Toronto. A nearby market provided orange blossom water, fennel, and kohlrabi. Figs, dates, and spices were found at a bulk store.
As Eric cooked, the house filled with the fragrant aromas of fenugreek, garlic, and roasting peanuts. We sat down to a table laden with colourful dishes, with the mutton curry in the middle, served as it is traditionally, as a communal dish with the mound of bazin in the centre. The mutton was excellent in flavour and texture, absorbing the flavours of the stew and falling apart like real mutton. As curries do, it tasted even better the next day when we ate up the leftovers.
The salad cooled our mouths with each satisfying, crunchy bite. We had never eaten either fennel or kohlrabi, but liked both. Fennel is similar to celery, but with a mild licorice flavour, and the kohlrabi is very similar to cabbage.
The beef-stuffed onions had a pleasant tomato-y taste and were a very oniony experience. If you like onions, these should be your go-to. Eric struggled with the preparation, especially hollowing out the onions without breaking them. He learned online that an apple corer can be used to great effect, and with this improved his technique, he was finally able to create the dish he wanted.
We were surprised at how much structural integrity the halva d’tmar had, considering the little bit of honey (just two teaspoons) that was acting as glue for the figs, dates, and nuts. We each enjoyed a serving of halva with our nutty tea, which was a surprise of its own — sweet, roast-y, and peanut-y, and the perfect way to round off the meal. The tea may find its way into our hot drink rotation as we head into the chilly days of late November.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.