When I was a kid, I grew up in Bahrain, the little island in the Persian Gulf. Life in Bahrain was safe and predictable, but it would sometimes get a bit boring (the island was so little, so there wasn’t much to do on it in terms of entertainment). Every summer, as an antidote to this boredom, my mom would take us kids and go to Egypt, and we’d stay there in my grandparents’ flat in Heliopolis for a good three months. Some of my childhood’s most memorable moments were from those summers. Every day was a culinary feast, with my grandma going to great lengths to prepare our favorite meals that we didn’t really get to enjoy in Bahrain (like stuffed pigeons, stuffed grape leaves, molokhia, and the like). From time to time, we’d venture out into the city, or spend a couple of days by the sea, or visit the ancient Egyptian ruins. For any such trips, or even while staying home to watch my beloved black-and-white Egyptian movies, we’d take along a long paper bag tightly packed with freshly toasted libb.
What is libb?
Libb (or ‘lebb‘) is the Arabic word for ‘seeds’. Of course, there are many varieties of edible seeds, but the two most popular in Egypt are libb abyad (or ‘white seeds’) and libb asmar (‘dark seeds’). I’ve been trying to figure out which particular fruits or vegetables supply these seeds that Egyptians especially are keen to roast and snack on. It turns out that that the pumpkin is a sure winner in supplying Egyptians with yummy seeds, followed by the watermelon!
A Rough Guide to Egypt states:
“Nut shops ( ma’la) are a high-street perennial, offering all kinds of peanuts (fuul sudani) and edible seeds. Lib abyad and lib asmar are varieties of pumpkin seeds; lib battikh come from watermelon, and chickpeas (hummus) are roasted and sugar-coated or dried and salted; all of these are sold by weight” (Richardson).
Seeds are known to be nutritional powerhouses in many parts of the world. According to WH Foods, pumpkin seeds contain high levels of manganese, tryptophan, magnesium, phosphorus and copper, among many other vitamins and minerals. But that’s not why we ate them growing up. We ate them more for entertainment than anything else. Cracking open each seed is an art form in the Arab world – a little bit of satisfaction results from each seed being extracted from its salty shell, then chewed. The salty, toasted goodness of the shell infuses the seed inside with a hint of the same flame-kissed, roasted taste. I can’t use enough descriptive words to describe the experience – you’ll just have to try it yourself! In the meantime, I found this phrase (“Art driven by life”) to be appropriate for describing the meaning of ‘az’azet libb (nibbling on seeds) to Egyptian society, and that is why I photographed it with the seeds above and in some of the images below .
For a while, I was under the impression that toasting seeds is kind of a complicated process. But inspired by Ameirah’s post on The Serious Eater, I decided to give it a shot and found out that the ‘complicated’ bit is a myth. Yup, you can roast seeds in the comfort of your own home, and with minimal effort. You just have to be a little patient. And by patient I mean that you have to wait for 24 hours for the fresh seeds to soak in some salt water.
Why is soaking seeds important?
I’ve been reading up on the importance of soaking legumes, grains, nuts and seeds to make them more digestible. In many traditional cultures, grains and legumes were soaked in an acidic medium (filtered water with some lemon juice, vinegar or liquid whey) to neutralize the high levels of phytic acid, which hinders the absorption of important nutrients (especially zinc and iron) in other foods. All foods have some phytic acid and other antinutrients but grains and legumes have a significant amount that can actually interfere with digestion and nutrient absorption. Seeds and nuts don’t have as much phytic acid; but they do have enzyme inhibitors that naturally inhibit these nuts and seeds from sprouting prematurely. Many people’s digestive systems are quite sensitive to these enzyme inhibitors; therefore, soaking nuts and seeds in warm salt water overnight and then dehyrdrating them the next day can really help make these raw seeds more digestible.
The Nourishing Gourmet shares why soaking seeds is important:
“Soaking your nuts in warm water will neutralize these enzyme inhibitors, and also help encourage the production of beneficial enzymes. These enzymes, in turn, increase many vitamins, especially B vitamins. It also makes these nuts much easier to digest and the nutrients more easily absorbed. And, yes, this is a traditional method of preparation. For example the Aztecs would soak pumpkin or squash seeds in salty water and then, sun dry them.”
How I made toasted pumpkin seeds (libb abyad) at home …
When making my own libb abyad at home, I figured I’d use the same traditional wisdom of soaking. Since pumpkins are one of the most popular seed-providing fruits, I elected to start my libb-toasting experiment by buying a pumpkin. I scooped out the seeds from the organic pumpkin I had bought from Whole Foods and put them to the side. I used half of the pumpkin flesh for a hearty rosemary-infused pumpkin soup (recipe coming soon) and the other half for a raw and vegan pumpkin pie (with a two-ingredient crust!), which was especially delicious.
Preparation of pumpkin seeds: I washed the slippery seeds in some running water (the medium pumpkin yielded about 1 cup of raw seeds), and then covered them with warm filtered water mixed with a teaspoon of Himalayan sea salt. I covered the container with the seeds and left them in a warm part of the kitchen for 24 hours. The next day, I rinsed the seeds well and dried them with a towel. I poured some unrefined mineral salt on top to cover them, and added them to a stainless steel tray.
I popped them in a 350F oven for about 10 minutes, flipping/shuffling them once throughout for them to toast evenly. The smell of the toasting seeds reminded me of my childhood summers, especially strolling the boardwalk by the sea in Egypt – there’s nothing quite similar to the feeling while walking by the sea and snacking on some libb.
In the future, I plan on mixing it up a bit and adding some other flavors. This particular recipe from Nourished Kitchen is appealing (who can say ‘no’ to chili and lime!?), but I’m on the lookout for other flavor combinations. Any ideas?