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By Sarah Elmusrati

No matter who we are, or where we come from, we all agree that we are what we eat.  That's why the importance of knowing the quality and origin of the food we consume, has grown in the past decade.  We know that local fruit and vegetables will always be fresher and tastier than the ones with high mileage; and that what we feed our livestock will indirectly be fed to us. 

 

You may be concerned about sustainability and prefer all things organic.  You may be an enthusiastic cook looking to explore some new flavors.  Or you may be finding yourself having to cook from scratch for the first time, having parted with your usual ready meals.  Whoever you may be, if you're keen on giving your kitchen (and your diet) a good clean this spring, keep these things in mind when re-stocking your fridge and cupboards:

 

Meat and Poultry

 It is difficult to know the source of meat and dairy products, as they are usually sold at a butcher's shop and have little or no labeling.  It is yet more difficult to know in what conditions these animals were reared.  Local livestock tend to live free-range, but battery farming is becoming the norm, especially with poultry.  A good rule of thumb is that locally-sourced meats are always more expensive than their imported counterparts (usually from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina).  Imported meats are shipped frozen and these are usually sold prepackaged at the butcher's. Check to make sure that these are frozen solid before buying; frosty packages mean they have begun to defrost and cannot be refrozen.  I am always wary of buying imported meat plainly for the fact that you can never really know how many times it has been frozen, thawed (transport, cutting, neglect), and refrozen.

 

If you want to watch the fat content of minced (ground) meat, buy whole cuts of beef by weight and have your butcher trim the fat and mince (grind) it for you.  The fattiness of meat also reflects the diet and lifestyle of the animal.  If you're not sure what cut of meat you need for a particular dish,  just let the butcher know, most good shops have English or French speaking employees and can help out with that. Just tell them you're making couscous for four, and they'll know what to do. 


Ask for meat that is Watani meaning national or local.  Arabi or Arabic is a term coined for chicken and eggs that are free-range.  When buying fresh milk products such as camel's milk, bear in mind that these are un pasturised  and have a very short shelf-life.  Keep refrigerated and boil before consuming.

 

Fruit and Veg

 Determining the seasonality and source of fruit and veg can be tricky.  The warmer Libyan climate means that produce comes into season much earlier than in Europe (strawberries as early as January compared to later in the spring in the UK), so you can't really rely on what you already know.  And thanks to the widespread use of greenhouses and tax free imports from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, which in turn may have been imported and repackaged, the puzzle gets even more complex.

 

When in doubt use your common sense.  Pineapples, kiwis and mangoes are not local; if it's not climate appropriate then it's not local.  Use your physical senses.  Colors should be vibrant, firm to the touch, fragrant.  If all the cucumbers are identical in color, shape and size, they were probably grown in a green house.

 

Now, I must admit that organic produce is virtually non-existent in Libya.  Tabe'i (natural) or Shamsi (solar) is misleading, as it only means that the produce was grown conventionally (pesticides and fertilizers included) and not in a greenhouse. But these terms do give a good indication that these varieties are actually in season; you can't find a shamsi tomato in the middle of winter.  Ba'ali or wild is your only chance for finding organic produce; these could be prickly pears (cactus fruit), wild figs, olives, green almonds, truffles, dates and Arabic apples (local variety).

 

Processed Food

 Ok, so what about the ready made stuff?  All I can say is read, read, squint and read some more.  All you need to know is in the fine print.  And if even that is vague (natural cheese flavor? seriously) then don't even bother with it.  Frozen French fries should be made of two ingredients; potatoes and vegetable oil. Canned beans should be no more than three; beans, salt and water.  Acidity regulator, who needs it, the brine does all the work.  Check the expiration date, especially on discounted foods, as there is no regulation on how long a shop can display close to end date products.


Beware of bright boxes that boast being "healthy", "low-fat" or "natural", these may still be loaded up with salt and sugar to compensate for flavor.  Steer away from anything with drink in the title, the actually percentage of real juice in it is minimal.  It's really just flavored sugar water.  Fructose is still sugar, even if it does come from a plant.  Gluten-free, sugar-free, egg-free, lactose-free and organic packaged products are usually found in the "diet" or "diabetic" section of the supermarket, or in most good pharmacies.

 

A Final Word

 Well if all that isn't enough to satisfy you, and you happen to have a bit of garden, why not grow and raise your own food!  Many Libyans keep sheep and chicken, and slaughter when needed.  Or if that's too extreme, keep a look out in our listings for posts about local farmer's markets, nurseries and slaughter houses in your area.





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FEATURE

LIVING OFF THE LAY OF THE LAND

Published May 2010

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