Last year I entered a food and travel writing competition with World Nomads Travel Insurance which required a story and a recipe, with accompanying photos, inspired by travelling. I was chuffed to bits to have been shortlisted to the final 50 from thousands of entries but for me the real joy was getting to re-create the spicy dish from my trip to Libya. The hardest bit was coming up with a name for the dish as ‘chicken macaroni’ seemed a little uninspiring. In the end it came to two; Dijaj Macaroni Toureg (dijaj meaning chicken in arabic and Toureg being the nomadic tribe of the desert) or One Pot Oubari Chicken Pasta, named after the outpost town we stayed in. I settled for the latter having no real idea of the origins of the dish.
This recipe is my version of a quick and easy dish cooked for us on a charcoal fire whilst visiting the oases of Libya, deep in the Sahara desert. It is both fiery and fresh, satisfying and light. Best of all it is cooked in one pot and served in a bowl. Perfect comfort food for a lazy night in.
One Pot Oubari Chicken Pasta (serves four)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 small or 1 medium onion finely diced
- 3 large garlic cloves chopped
- 3-4 fresh hot green chillies (I use Thai but you could use jalapenos)
- 1 x fresh small red chilli (Thai or bird’s eye)
- 4 chicken thighs skinned and diced into chunks (keep the bones)
- 2 medium tomatoes diced
- 2 x tablespoons of tomato puree
- 1 x tablespoon chopped fresh coriander and extra to garnish.
- 500ml chicken stock/500 water or 1 litre water
- 250g dried small pasta such as Messicani, Strozzapreti or Macaroni
Spice Mix (all measurements are level)
- 2 x teaspoon ground coriande
- 1 teaspoon each of :
- ground turmeric
- hot red chilli powder or cayenne
- ground black pepper
- ground cumin
In a deep sauce or stock pot fry the onions in the olive oil on a medium heat until translucent (approx 10 minutes). Add the garlic and fresh chillies and stir for another 2 minutes until coloured (take care not to burn the garlic or it will go bitter). Stir in the spices until mixed well with the onions and add the chicken pieces and bones. Continue to cook for approx 5-6 minutes until chicken is no longer pink on the outside. Pour in your stock/water mixture, ensuring chicken is covered in liquid, use extra if necessary. Add the chopped fresh tomatoes, tomato puree and fresh coriander. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on. Season with salt to taste; as you are cooking the pasta in the sauce you will want more than normal. Add the pasta directly to the sauce pot and cook for as many minutes as instructed. Turn off the heat and let sit for a few minutes before serving in bowls with Arabic or crusty bread and a sprinkling of fresh coriander.
Whilst in Libya, my boyfriend and I decided to escape the bustle of Tripoli and flew 600 miles south, deep into the Sahara in search of adventure. The dusty outpost town of Oubari gave no indication of the wonders concealed in the dunes beyond. The next day we were driven out of town along on a straight tarmac road, a permanent heat haze hovering on the horizon. Suddenly pulling off road in the 4×4, we tore across the sand for what seemed like hours. We passed one scruffy village and then there was nothing but undulating orange dunes for miles.
Then in the distance we saw a shimmer of gemstone green. As we neared, the vision took shape and became a glasslike emerald lake fringed by tall palms. It was breathtaking. We stopped to walk the shore of the oasis eating squidgy sugary dates from nearby plants, marvelling at the perfect reflection on the water.
Our driver Mohamed was also our cook for the day. We relaxed in the shade as he prepared a starter of fire-grilled chicken. The skin was charred and crisp, the flesh succulent and spiced. We ate every bit with gusto.
I asked Mohamed him who taught him to cook. “My mother” he replied and I nodded. Many Libyan men, such as my father, are able cooks. He placed a large metal pot directly on the burning coals and in went oil, onions, green chillies, garlic, spices, raw chicken and carcass, tomatoes and water. It bubbled away for 20 minutes before he added macaroni.
“Everyone knows how to make this dish” he said. I told him that I knew a similar version using lamb instead of chicken. “You will like this” he smiled. He was right, we loved it. Whilst not as rich as my lamb dish, and far fiercer, it tasted comforting in a familiar way. The green chilli bite brought out the sweetness of the chicken and the fragrant spicy sauce clung to the soft pasta. As the sun set behind the snaking dunes, the temperature dropped, giving us all an excuse to eat three warming bowls, mopping up the juice with bread.
It was an exceptional one-pot meal and if I want to relive my Saharan oasis adventure, I can do it with my version of this Oubari Chicken Pasta (coal fire & sand optional).