Community building through food sharing + Libyan spicy bird’s tongue soup (lsan asfour)
When people ask me what I miss about Saudi Arabia, two things pop up in my head: a) shattaf (no, really, say what you want about Arabs, but we got bum hygiene right!), and b) the sense of community that I grew up with.
My mother used to tell me that whenever she moved to a new country or a new house, she’d go knocking on neighbors’ doors with a plate of home-cooked food in her hands and introduce herself as the newest addition to the neighborhood. If no one answers the door, she’d leave a note saying “let’s have tea sometime.” After all, nothing says “I come in peace” more than making the effort to cook for complete strangers. As a child, I didn’t think much of that and took it for granted. Because I had a mother like that, I had the privilege of growing up in a community of neighbors that knew each other and became close friends, and their children were my childhood friends.
When my mother had me and my siblings, we became her child labor, and instead she’d send us knocking on doors with a plate of food in our hands. That act of food sharing was mandatory whenever my mother made one of her popular dishes; she’d make sure she cooked at least double the amount she normally would just to make sure that our neighbors got a taste of the food. Eventually, the neighbors would bring back the plate, but never empty. And that’s how communities were built around food and neighbors became friends. And after sometime, the barriers disappeared and some of our neighbors used to even ask my mother to make sure she included them whenever she made their favorites (usually maqlouba or jareesh).
Food sharing was a ritual, and it intensified during the month of Ramadan. Almost daily, we’d break our fast with a variety of foods from different homes and cultures – from Afghan mantu to Hejazi buff, we learnt about the variety of ways that people prefer to eat during Ramadan. There were even times when my mother didn’t bother cooking because a neighbor would call and say that they’re going to be cooking for us, and it was often enough to feed us all as a family of eight.
Because of that tradition, my family was introduced to new dishes from other (Arab) cuisines. My mother eventually learnt how to cook these dishes from her neighbors, and our neighbors learnt how to cook my mother’s Palestinian food. That’s how I was introduced to Saudi dishes such as saleeg, jareesh, margoog and matazeez, Kuwaiti dishes such as balaleet and machboos, and many others – back in the day, if you wanted to try traditional food, it was hard to find in restaurants; the place to find it was in Saudi homes. All of these dishes soon found a way to my heart and became childhood favorites.
I didn’t think much of this when I was young, but now that I’ve left “home” and am living on another continent, I can see what a difference that makes. Even in Arab communities, I assume that is less of a thing now. People are becoming more and more isolated, and it feels like the bigger the city, the more isolated we become. I honestly couldn’t muster the courage to do the same thing with my neighbors in my apartment building in the busy, transient city of London. I do feel quite reluctant to approach my neighbors, or maybe I’d feel braver if I lived in a residential family area where a community already exists. After all, what if people’s reaction is something along the lines of “what the fuck is wrong with her?” or “is she trying to poison us?”
I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts on this. Did you have a similar experience growing up? Is it something that you tried to do yourself, or would be willing to try?
I’ll leave you with a recipe for a soup that I can only describe as unreal. It’s a Libyan spicy soup called lsan asfour, meaning “bird’s tongue” because of the small shape of the orzo pasta that’s used in it (don’t worry, no birds were harmed in the process). It was a dish that my mother learnt to cook from her neighbors when my family first moved to Libya, and ever since then, it has become a staple in our household. I can say with great confidence that this is my favorite soup in the world, and I’m sure it’ll be a favorite of yours as well. If you’re a fan of hot and sour soup, you will definitely love this one.
Recipe for Libyan spicy bird’s tongue soup (lsan asfour)
-2 tbsp cooking oil
-1 onion, chopped
-3/4 tsp chili powder (or to taste)
-1 heaping tsp allspice
-1/2 tsp ground coriander
-1/2 tsp cinnamon
-1/2 heaping tsp cumin
-1 heaping tsp turmeric
-1/4 to 1/2 tsp black pepper
-2 to 3 tbsp tomato paste
-4 cups good-quality vegetable stock (adjust the salt accordingly. Using good-quality stock makes all the difference. Alternatively, substitute with water and about 1/2 tsp stock powder or more, or just water)
-1 tsp salt (or to taste)
-6 tbsp bird’s tongue (orzo) pasta
-2 large handfuls of chopped parsley
-1 tbsp dried mint
-juice of half a lemon
In a cooking pot, heat the oil then add the chopped onion and cook until it wilts a bit.
Add all the spices all the way to the tomato paste and cook for a few minutes.
Add the water and salt until it comes to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the onions no longer have a bite to them and almost melt in your mouth, for approximately half an hour.
Add the pasta and cook until it softens a bit but isn’t fully cooked, then add the parsley and simmer on low heat until the pasta is fully cooked.
If the soup is too thick, add more water and adjust the salt accordingly.
Add the dried mint and lemon at the end and cook for a few more minutes.
I have seen recipes that add chickpeas as well. You can do that if you’d like the soup to be more substantial, but as much as I love chickpeas, I prefer this soup without them. The soup is also usually made with meat, so you can add a plant-based red meat alternative if you’d like.