When Turkey’s first attempts at joining the European Union were rebuffed, one of the talked about ‘undesirable’ (for Europe) aspects of Turkish life, were the popular roasted meat sandwiches sold by Turkish street vendors, and something else described as
Apparently the EU considered these sandwiches, and the dough, to be unhealthy, unhygienic and below European food standards. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that one man’s meat is another’s poison. Since the Turks like to eat this food why be snobbish about it? I’m sure that if we searched widely enough, we could possibly find some European dishes that may be considered ‘undesirable’ by other nations’ standards.
In the end, it all depends on what one’s palate and stomach are used to. But going by this principle, wouldn’t it be interesting to see those ‘experts’ of gastronomy trying out some Libyan cuisine?
Some of our local dishes are, to some extent, similar to other Mediterranean and Arab recipes, but if there is a dish that is quintessentially Libyan, then that is Bazeen.
Now, you can’t really appreciate this dish unless you’re born into a Libyan family, or unless you’ve lived in Libya for such a long time that Libyan habits have rubbed off on you. It is a very simple dish that does not require many ingredients. Originally the staple food of the western arable regions of Libya, it is now a favourite all over the country.
Made completely from milled barley grains mixed with salt and water, the dough is formed into palm-size ‘cakes’ and cooked in water in a special copper pot called a ‘qidir’. When ready, the remaining water is removed from the pot, and put aside.
The barley cakes, having become solid, are then broken up in the pot with a large, flat, wooden ladle and mixed together to form one large piece.
In some regions it is cooked in a different way like pudding. But that’s taking the easy way out, like cheating. If you want the genuine thing, it has to be made the original way.
The barley water that’s put aside is sometimes added to the mixing process to soften the cooked dough, or used as the soup itself. The fibre in this meal, especially if the roughage is not completely removed, is better than that of any modern factory-packed cereal.
The bazeen dough is then placed in a large bowl and by means of some intricate hand movements, formed into the shape of a dome. This dome is placed in the centre of the serving bowl, and the accompanying soup poured around it.
On special occasions this is a tomato puree based soup with lamb or mutton, onions, potatoes, green peppers, and fenugreek seeds. The mere idea of serving bazeen to a guest without fist-size pieces of mutton is unthinkable to Libyans, especially those from outside the capital, Tripoli.
On ordinary days it can be meatless, and cooked only with onions, fresh tomatoes and green peppers. It’s wholesome food, no doubt about it.
The quirky thing about it, is the way it’s eaten. There is absolutely no other way to eat it, so don’t even try to find one. Because it’s eaten by hand, many people have stopped
eating it at weddings or large gatherings, not wanting to share a communal bowl with strangers.
But at home with the family, everyone dips in. Those who don’t are teased and called ‘softies’. Some try to eat it with a spoon, but it’s just not the same. This is because the flavour of the bazeen and the soup can only be brought out by mixing them together with
When this mashing process is done expertly (warning: not everybody is an expert), it results in one of the most delicious foods on earth. Libyans have been eating barley for thousands of years: barley bazeen, barley bread, roasted barley grains’ flour (suwiga). During times of poverty and drought, a handful of milled barley cooked and eaten with goat milk, fed a whole family.
For Libyans who appreciate it, bazeen is not just an old-fashioned, out of touch with modernity, meal. It’s a tradition honouring our ancestors for whom sometimes, a few barley grains made all the difference between life and death.