Like many people deep in the throes of lockdown boredom last year, Nadine Dahan and Ahmed Gatnash sought solace in the kitchen. The couple, based in Wales, weren’t trying to ace the perfect sourdough loaf or tackle recipes they’d never tried before. Instead, they set out to recreate the foods they’d loved from their childhood in Libya — savoury busla, a richly spiced relish of onions to top couscous, jammy shakshuka bursting with peppers, and osban, a kind of haggis filled with lamb, rice, offal and herbs.
There was one problem: Libyan food is uniquely spicy, not only in terms of heat, which is plentiful and powerful, but also richly aromatic, with some dishes calling for upwards of a dozen spices milled into pungent blends. Those blends, and many of the component spices that go into them, were nowhere to be found in their town.
This wasn't a new revelation for the pair who often helped their parents pack suitcases full of spices at the end of summer trips to Libya. "My parents would bring back just a ton of ingredients, and I was always embarrassed," Gatnash says. "I was worried, what would the airport folks think if they opened our bags?"
Since then, however, the brutal civil war and Covid-19 has meant sourcing spices from Libya has become nearly impossible. “So if we wanted good spices, we would have to grind and mix them ourselves,” Gatnash explains.
To find the right recipes for the spice blends they were hoping to recreate, they turned to the experts. “We started connecting with our grandmothers and aunts back in Libya. There were some blog posts and a few recipes here and there, but the elderly women know a lot of the techniques and recipes that young people just don’t know.”
The recipes, exchanged over WhatsApp, were often given in bulk. “Five cups of this, three cups of that, a kilo of turmeric, a half kilo of coriander seeds,” Gatnash says with a laugh. “It would be these huge quantities because often the people who knew how to make the blends were the ones making them for the whole community.”
The pair dove in, making spreadsheets with quantities, buying spices in bulk, then toasting and grinding them in their kitchen. When their coffee grinder gave out, they splurged on a large spice mill to keep up. They tested the blends on a variety of dishes, but there was one that became their acid test.
“Embakebka,” Dahan says. “It’s a rich tomato-based pasta dish – one pot, loads of sauce and loads of flavour. It is often the only thing that young Libyan bachelors can cook, and it is ubiquitous at beach parties and late-night gatherings.” Dahan describes it as the perfect gateway drug to Libyan cuisine’s addictive heat and flavour profile, so when they found the perfect blend to make it sing, they knew they had something special.
They started doling out sachets to friends and family nearby, and rave reviews came pouring back, along with demand for more. Despite their busy day jobs working in human rights, the couple decided they wanted to share their creations with a broader audience, and Oea, their small online spice shop, was born.
Named for the ancient settlement in western Libya near modern-day Tripoli, Oea sells six different spice blends that are toasted and ground to order, and shipped around the world. There are classics such as the turmeric-forward bzaar mix, brightened up with galangal and caraway, and the one-two punch of cinnamon and cloves in the busla mix.
There are also two different varieties of the Libyan staple hararat, which Gatnash says came about after discovering friends in Benghazi added cardamom, wormwood and rose petals to the traditional 10-spice mix.
“Libya has suffered from a forcible homogenisation,” Gatnash says. “Unity through sameness was pushed on people during the Qaddafi years, but we wanted to show we can co-exist and celebrate our regional differences.”
Several months into their venture, Dahan and Gatnash have shared their spices, and recipes for Libyan classics such as sharba ("a post-fast essential", according to Dahan) with epicureans across UK and Europe.
“We really wanted Oea to bring the tastes of our childhoods to every single dinner table,” Dahan says, “and part of our mission is to familiarise people with Libyan cuisine and more broadly North African flavours.”
While the couple delights in introducing folks around the world to the flavours of their childhood, the true test lays with those who know what a good hararat or bzaar tastes like. Thankfully, since Oea opened earlier this year, they’ve received dozens of repeat orders, usually via WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, from older Libyans living in the UK and elsewhere in Europe who haven’t been back to Libya in months or years.
But the ultimate confirmation came in a simple quip from Gatnash’s mother after she cooked her first dish with their blends. “It turns out I’ve been cooking with flour all these years instead of spices.”