As in every cuisine, there are staples that people turn to in time of famine and feast. Though I can’t speak for every Libyan kitchen (Libya is a huge country whose cultural nuances differ from place to place), here are a few ingredients that I have learned to keep stocked in our home.
Olive Oil and Olives
Food is always prepared in olive oil, and there is no fear of “too much” olive oil (to which I agree!). Olive oil, in a traditional Libyan kitchen, is generally sourced locally from the coastal and mountainous regions of the country, and is known as “green gold.” Though olive oil and olive exportation is currently banned, one can still get access to Libyan olive production within the country. Outside of the country, the best olive oil can be found in small Middle Eastern grocery stores (a lot of these ingredients can be found there) with olives coming from Turkey, Lebanon, and other North African countries.
There’s a running joke with my husband and I, that at every meal a small jar of harissa sits. Though I’ve got a bit spicier in my cooking with time, my own traditional Wisconsin cooking background is generally pretty benign. Harissa is a hot pepper paste made with garlic and spices such as coriander and cumin. Though in a true Libyan home, harissa would probably be freshly made, at our home, we generally buy a small tin imported from Tunisia that lasts 1-2 weeks once opened.
Onion and Garlic
Onion and garlic are staples in most kitchens throughout many culinary traditions, and Libya is no exception. What is better than the smell of garlic lightly frying? Forming the base of soups, stews, and really everything savory, onion and garlic are a no-fail combination.
Couscous of course! For a long time we were buying these small, single serving couscous boxes that came with spices. Though I’m still game for anything quick and easy, as life as a parent has taught me, the price of each one of those boxes is too much to be spending on a regular basis. Instead, I look for the “ethnic” section in the grocery store, and buy a larger, unflavored couscous box, good for about five meals for a family of three.
Coffee and Tea
Like most Arabic countries, Libyans are no exception when it comes to loving coffee and tea. In fact, because of the Italian influence in Libyan cuisine, they may love coffee even more! Whether it is a true Arabic coffee, short and strong, or a black tea, there is no wrong time for coffee or tea. I will highlight this at a later point, but true Libyan tea is a distinct treat. Boiled and made frothy by a technique that passes the hot liquid from one cup to the next, the tea actually has nuts floating in it, which make for a delightfully surprising refreshment!
Tomato paste forms the basis for so many Libyan dishes from okra stew to pasta dishes. Inexpensive (79 cents a can in the US), small, and potent, tomato paste is a wonderfully enriching tool to have in your kitchen. I actually never cooked with it before being married to my husband, but now I am hooked! Add quick flavor with this trusty friend.
That’s a real quick shortlist of a few items I think of when it comes to Libyan food. If you have any things you would add, please comment below! I’d love to hear what the Libyan kitchen means to you.