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Cooking the Perfect Couscous

The first time I asked Hassan Sahnoon, my driver, if I could watch his wife cook he nodded absent-mindedly. The second time, the next day, he said he would go to arrange it right then. An hour later he called me to tell me he had found two old women who could dress in yesteryear’s Berber costumes and cook yesteryear’s classical Berber meal. They wanted $150 for the privilege of showing me the preparation of food people no longer ate. “But I want to research the food that Libyans eat today,” I told Hassan. “Why can’t I pay your wife instead, and watch her cook?”

"My wife doesn't know how to cook," he replied.

I was in the old town of Ghadamis in the Sahara Desert at the time, and I turned to my guide who had overheard the conversation. “How about paying your wife to watch her cook?”

"My wife is busy and has no time to cook," he said.

I was mystified by the evasiveness. Then Hassan invited me for dinner at his house, and when we arrived he herded me into the living room and closed the door. That’s when it occurred to me that my earlier requests had been impertinent and brazen: there was no way a Libyan man, given Libya’s conservative interpretation of Islam, could allow another man in the kitchen with his wife or daughter or mother.

So Hassan proceeded to the kitchen and brought a tray of food his wife had prepared to the living room – a small space decorated with green flower-patterned sofa, dull green carpet, and an old-fashioned brownish cabinet. The tray held truffles and vegetables and bread. It was the first time I had truffles; we had bought them a day earlier at a roadside stall in the desert, a kilo for $25. The truffles grow wild in the parts of the desert where the terrain is dominated by gravel and thin soil, a flat lifeless land where the only features on the landscape are a scattering of dark robed men intensely scanning the ground for the cracked welt that indicate the presence of truffles. “They are delicious baked in sand, and accompanied with garlic, onion, cumin and fish,” Hassan told me. We had ours, that evening, sautéed in hararat - a Libyan mix of five spices.

Ghadamis, Hassan’s hometown, is in Libya’s Berber heartland where cooking in sand is popular. The concept is to burn charcoal in the sand; this heats the sand, and then food is wrapped in tin foil, buried in the hot sand, and baked in that manner for an hour and a half. The next day Hassan took me to a Berber tent in the desert for a dinner of tea and bread. The bread, called Hobza Ilmella, is a flat round bread shaped like a loop; it is kneaded with black aniseed, sesame seeds, and fennel seeds, and baked in the hot sand for thirty minutes. Then it is eaten with green tea; starting with a thick brew of green tea and roasted peanuts, then eating chunks of bread (dense inside, crunchy crust), and finishing the meal with another brew of green tea spiced with the leaves of fresh mint.

Elsewhere throughout my one-month road-trip in Libya – covering 3,875km, and seeing less than half of the massive country – the food I experienced is a hybrid of Middle Eastern, North African, and Italian cuisines. Lunches were almost always out of the car, by the roadside, and consisted mostly of bread and canned fish, and sometimes cold rice salad whose only innovation was pickled broad beans (broad beans boiled in water, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, then pickled in olive oil). Dinners are standard three-course meals throughout Libya: a soup (Xarba Arbija), salad (mostly of tomatoes, onions, and cucumber in olive oil and lemon juice), and couscous (kusksu). For variety the soup is sometimes substituted by spaghetti or macaroni – always overcooked – and couscous is substituted by grilled or fried meat served with chips, or couscous can be swapped with rice. I didn’t mind having soup and couscous every dinner: both are excellent, and the sauce for couscous has an infinite number of variations.

Only in good restaurants in Tripoli did I find a greater variety of Libyan food. Among the ones I liked there were the tagen (a bake of mince-meat, eggs, and potatoes), mubattan (potatoes stuffed with a sauce of mincemeat and then deep fried), and various types of stuffed vegetables, tomatoes or zucchini or green peppers, stuffed with rice and mincemeat sauce. I wanted to watch these dishes being prepared, and my first attempts led nowhere – I would speak to restaurant owners, agree a time with the chef and owner when business was slow, especially during the afternoon siesta; then I would turn up at the agreed time and they would not be there. (This is characteristic in Libya, and all foreigners I spoke to fume about it – Libyans regularly fail to turn up for meetings.)

In the end the chef at the Corinthia’s Bab Africa agreed to show me how those foods were done. The Corinthia is Libya’s only true five-star hotel, and it’s making a killing with business guests – the hotel is consistently busy, and the lobby buzzes with activity throughout the day. The food is excellent at its La Vallette restaurant, and at Fez, the flagship Moroccan restaurant, there was a queue of hopeful diners on a Saturday evening. I was invited to Fez by the PR Manager, a bright single Libyan woman, and when I arrived I also found the Room Manager, a Tunisian man, who would be joining us. I was mystified: what did the Room Manager have to do with my research about food? Then it occurred to me, once again, that it wouldn’t be wise for a Libyan woman to be seen alone with a man in a public place. So she had to contrive a tripartite business dinner, and the Tunisian man sat silent all throughout while the PR Manager and I discussed Libya’s slow trajectory to modern development.

The Perfect Couscous

You can never get perfectly-cooked – in fluffy grains – if you follow the cooking instructions found on the packets of couscous. Getting couscous cooked right is a long, double process, and the Libyans have perfected the technique. To start with, sprinkle some salt and pepper, and drizzle of olive oil, into the raw couscous, then mix thoroughly by hand. Then place in a pot and add boiling water to about a third of the depth of the couscous layer (it is better to err on the low side than on the high side; a little extra water will make the grains clump together). Cover the lid and let stand for 15 minutes; the water would be absorbed and the grains half-cooked.

For the sauce, use one of the double pots that have a fitting sieve on top (or improvise by placing a metal sieve in a normal pot, and then cover the whole with the lid). Once the sauce starts simmering, place the couscous in the sieve, insert into the pot, cover, and let simmer for at least an hour; this way the sauce and couscous cook together in the same double-tiered pot. The couscous will continue cooking by the steam arising from the simmering sauce; additionally, the couscous grains would also take the flavor of the sauce.

Restaurants

There are only a few outstanding restaurants for Libyan food in Tripoli. The best I have found are the restaurants at the Corinthia Bab Africa (Souk Al Thulatha Al Gadim, Tripoli; tel: 021-3351917; www.corinthiatripoli.com). La Vallette is the buffet-style restaurant that serves food all day; Fez, the Moroccan restaurant, is open for dinners, and it gets so busy that booking is essential. Another good restaurant, very popular with Libyans, is called Borma ( Omar Makthar Street, Tripoli; 0927174630); it’s open daily 10am-midnight.

Recipes

As a spice, the Libyans use a five-in-one spice mixture called hararat - it's not found for sale outside Libya. As a substitute, I used my own mixture that worked well: curry powder, turmeric, cumin, and coriander. In the recipes below, the ingredient named Spice Mixture refers to this improvised mixture; you can experiment with your own mixture.

Couscous Sauce (Kusksu)

You can use a variety of meats, or fish, in a couscous sauce – for the sauce below, I assume the use of beef. You have to chop the meat, pumpkin, carrot, and potatoes in large chunks – one chunk per serving – to prevent overcooking.

Servings: 4 people

1 large onion, sliced in half sideways, then sliced in thin slices crosswise
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and halved
2 carrots, halved
250 grams red pumpkin, cut in four chunks
300 grams beef, cut in four chunks
150 grams chickpeas (soaked overnight)
Bay leaf
1 teaspoon Chili powder
2 tablespoons Spice Mixture
5 tablespoons tomato paste 5
5 tablespoons tomato pulp
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cube beef stock

Fry onion and garlic until soft; add meat and sauté until discolored. Add potato, carrot, some of the chili powder and Spice Mixture, sauté a little more. Add tomato paste and pumpkin and sauté another minute. Add bay leaf, water (enough to cover all), chickpeas, rest of Spice Mixture, sugar, beef stock, and bring to boil, cover, and simmer for 1 hour or until cooked and the sauce is thick.

Cook the couscous grains as described above. To serve, put the couscous in a large bowl, ladle the sauce on top, and let the diners have their own servings.

Libyan Soup (Xarba Arbija)

Servings: 4 people:

1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
150 grams beef cubed in inch-squares
200 grams chickpeas (cooked)
150 grams red lentils
1 small potato, cubed (optional)
� carrot, in thin half-slices
5 spoonfuls tomato paste
Sugar (about half-tablespoon)
Spice Mixture, about 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon chili powder
� teaspoon dried ground mint
1 cube beef stock

Fry onions and garlic until onion is soft and glistening. Then add beef, some chili, a little of the spice mixture, and sauté until meat discolors. Add potato, carrot, tomato paste, sugar, salt, more chili and the rest of the spice mixture, and continue sautéing for a minute or less. Add stock, water, red lentils, and bring to boil, then cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas, and let simmer another 15 minutes. In the last minute add the mint. Then serve with lemon wedges to be squeezed into the soup after serving.

Tagen (Meat and Potato Bake)

This is a bit bland on its own as a full-on meal; have it for breakfast, or a quick lunchtime snack, or as an accompaniment to another dish.

Servings: 4

Two large potatoes, peeled and sliced in one-inch-thick slices
100 grams minced beef
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Sprinkle of chili powder
Sprinkle of curry powder
Two eggs beaten
40 grams grated mozzarella

Boil the potato in water until cooked, then in a bowl crush it roughly – leaving it in chunks – with a fork.

In a separate pan, fry onion and garlic until soft. Add mincemeat, and sauté until almost cooked; mix in the chili and curry powder. Once this meat mixture cools, add to the bowl; then add the beaten eggs and mix.

Pour the mixture in an oven dish, and bake for 20 minutes at a temperature of 175 celsius. Take it out of the oven, spread the mozzarella on top, and bake for another 15 minutes until the mozzarella is brown.

Stuffed Vegetables

You can stuff green peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini using the same process – best results are achieved with zucchini. Serve the zucchini as a starter, or a part of another dish.

Servings: 4

Eight short zucchini
Half a cup of rice
1 cube beef stock
150 grams beef mince
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 small onion, finely chopped
40 grams grated mozzarella
Sprinkle of curry powder
Sprinkle of chili powder

Cook the rice until almost cooked; set aside.

In a pan fry the onion until soft, then add the minced beef, curry powder and chili powder and sauté for a minute, mixing well.

Mix the rice, meat mixture, mozzarella and coriander. Place this mixture in hollowed-out zucchini. Melt the stock in a cup of boiling water; pour the stock in an oven dish, place the zucchini in the dish, then cover with tin foil.

Bake in the over for 30 minutes at 150 celsius heat.