- 4-5 tablespoons oil
- 2 lbs lamb (cubed)
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2-3 Roma tomatoes
- 1-3 tablespoons Tomato paste
- 2-3 cups any small pasta
- 1/4 bunch cilantro (finely chopped)
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 jalapeño (whole)
- 1/2 turmeric
- 1/2 tablespoon cayenne
- Start by prepping all the ingredients; finely chopping onion, cilantro and dill. Set aside.
- Puree tomatoes, and set aside.
- Chop lamb or beef into small to medium size cubes. The size of the cube will dictate the cooking time; for a faster cooking time, cut into small cubes. Chicken can also be used, with bone in chicken requiring additional cooking time.
- Place a pot on medium high heat and add a generous amount of oil, toss in onions and allow to cook until translucent.
- Add cubed meat and let brown on all sides. About 5 minutes.
- Add tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add tomato puree and let cook for an additional 1-2 minutes.
- Season with turmeric, cayenne (add as little or as much depending on how spicy you want the base) and a little salt.
- Cover meat with hot water and let it come to a boil. Once water has boiled reduce heat to a simmer and let cook until tender. At this point, if you choose to add a jalapeño, poke it with the tip of the knife and toss it in. See note 1.
- Once meat is tender (carefully remove jalapeño and set aside), bring base to a boil and add any small pasta shape to the pot. See note 2.
- As the pasta cooks, add finely chopped cilantro and a hefty amount of dried basil. Let cool until pasta is done. See note 3.
- Once pasta is cooked, adjust salt to taste and let cool for 5-10 minutes.
- Serve hot (don't forget about the jalapeño) with a side of pita bread.
- Medium size cubes of lamb/beef will need at least 1.5-2 hours. Small cubes of lamb/beef will need at least 1-1.5 hours. Bone in chicken will need at least 40 minutes and boneless chicken will need 20-30 minutes. If no meat is added, allow base to simmer for 10-15 minutes
- For Mbakbaka that is on the 'watery' side add additional water prior to cooking the pasta. This will allow the pasta to fully cook and will result in a final dish that isn't dry. Traditionally, Mbakbaka is supposed to have extra liquid in the final dish.
- Dill is also commonly used. This can be added along with cilantro and basil or it can be added in place of the basil. Dried dill can be used as well.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Zainab Hassen of Stoughton noticed a lack of Libyan representation in local Middle Eastern cuisine. Restaurants featured Lebanese or Syrian cuisine and often ignored the Libyan dishes she grew up with.
“I think that impacted me as a child because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. Nobody knew or cared about my culture or who we are as Libyans and North Africans,” Hassen shared.
Hungry for change, Hassen set out to create MENASpice — a social media page to share North African recipes and brand her own blended spice mixes.
She uses those spices in her own home-cooking. One dish she enjoys making is Mbakbaka, a one-pot Libyan tomato-based pasta stew with a complex flavor profile. It features short pasta, both dried spices and hot peppers, and traditionally, a choice of chicken or beef, in a flavorful tomato broth.
“It’s a hearty dish. It’s delicious. It’s spicy. It’s super easy to make,” Hassen explained.
It was also a staple of her childhood and almost every Libyan grew up eating it. It’s easily portable, so it’s perfect for Hassen’s family camping trips to Governor Dodge State Park or beach outings along the Mediterranean coastline.
Back home, what Hassen loves most about living in Wisconsin are the people.
“One of the things that I love about being in the Midwest and in Wisconsin is how kind people are and how hospitable they are and how welcoming they are. That resonates with me because Libyans and Libyan culture is exactly that,” she said.
She also pointed out how both places have a deep connection to farm-to-table food traditions, respect for animals, and sharing food with neighbors. But, in North African culture, it’s common to eat with your hands – and Hassen said it makes the food taste even better.
“It’s just a completely different experience eating with your hands than it is sitting there with a spoon and a fork,” Hassen said.
In 2020, during the height pandemic, Hassen ambitiously transitioned from a social media presence online to brick and mortar shop. She opened MENASpice and Turkish Imports, a small family-run spice and cookware store in downtown Stoughton, Wisconsin that operated for two years. She said it was an opportunity to share her culture, her cuisine, and who she is authentically with the community.
To Hassen, “It’s the dream. Truly, it really is.”