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Egypt's enchanting soup from the bird's tongue: Lesan al Asfour

  Let's just start this off right: this is not a meal about an actual bird's tongue. This is simply the easiest and most comforting soup made with orzo pasta, also known as lesan al asfour. It's one of those soups that doesn't require much, but when you put all the elements together, it's essentially a giant bear hug from the inside.  Comfort liquid food When you're feeling sick, you sip on this, and all will be well again. You're feeling cold because it's that time in between seasons, take a bowl of this nourishing soup, and you're guaranteed to have forgotten the cold.  My mother would always make us this soup on the weekends. Our weekends were the stuff of dreams (no sarcasm here). Saturday morning cartoons, followed by an afternoon of chicken boiling with fragrant herbs and spices and, if we were lucky, a small pot of chicken livers stewing on the side. Later in the afternoon, we'd be called down for a snack, and this would be a bowl of soup

Egypt's fragrant semolina cake: basbousa

I've recently realised that there aren't many Egyptian desserts that I'm familiar with, apart from watermelon or chocolate; the desserts of choice growing up. But there have been hidden gems along the way. So I've begun to collect them. 

One in particular is basbousa in Egyptian, or up in Alexandria, it's called herissa. Over in Syria, it's  namoura in Syria, or revani in Turkey and Greece. 

All different ways to say sweet semolina cake oozing in honey/syrup.

While it's definitely not a dessert my family makes; ever, it's one that I've always loved saying: bas-bou-sa. Beautiful! And it sounds a little indecent too.

Smells like heaven 

Being that this was not a family specialty, I got to feast my eyes on it during the times we would hit up the Middle East bakery. If you haven't been to one, you should. The smells of pistachio and rose water are just enough to make you think everything will be light and fluffy, when in fact it's all soaking in butter and syrup. So everything is quite heavy, and very, very sweet. It's probably one reason the Middle East has a high rate of diabetes.

But back to the dessert store. 

There are trays of konafa, baklawa, kahk (cookie stuffed with nuts/dates) mamoul (cookie stuffed with dates), and basbousa, all layered and begging to be eaten. I always gravitated towards basbousa for a couple reasons: it's the easiest one to eat, and calling it basbousa in Egyptian gave me a little connection to my food. 

Most of the dessert places are Lebanese, so when they hear 'basbousa' immediately a conversation ensues in Arabic, and I explain in my broken Arabic after several questions are directed at me that 'I speak a little' 'very little' and then we all laugh and someone mumbles something that I don't understand, and then I hope I get a discount for being from the same region.

Semolina: for cake and pasta

Basbousa is made from semolina which is ground durum wheat. It's the same wheat used in pasta throughout the world, in couscous throughout North Africa, and in salads or meat pies in the Middle East (tabouleh, kobaeba). The wheat itself may have originated from the southern Mediterranean countries and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). It was also grown in Egypt during the Byzantine period (Middle Ages).

With the rise of Islam, trade between the Islamic empire and Europe began. Durum wheat was one of the Muslim world's biggest exports. Also, with the Islamic empire spreading all the way to Southern Italy, durum wheat inevitably made its way into Europe as a pasta.

The rise of basbousa

It's hard to say exactly how the dessert itself came to be, but it seems to follow a common theme with most of the desserts: bread-like, very very sweet, and buttery. It also doesn't require too many ingredients.

The basic list of ingredients is semolina flour, sugar, milk, water (or rose/orange blossom water) and almonds/pistachios. I would suggest getting some rose/orange blossom water for this one because it really adds flavour. My recipe uses coconut flakes as well, but you could easily eliminate it and just add the same quantity of semolina. 

It's simple enough to make, but one piece is really all you want. So make sure you know more than two people, since you'll need help finishing all of this. Or I suppose you could just half the recipe. That would be smarter. But I didn't think of that. So I have a tray of syrupy delights and not enough space to run circles in.


Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 huge portions, 8 large portions, or 16 reasonable portions



2 cups of semolina OR 3 cups of semolina if no dried coconut

1 cup of dried coconut (unsweetened) 

1/2 cup sugar

150 g (3/4 cup) butter

1 cup of milk


1 1/2 cup of sugar or honey

1 1/2 cups of water or 1/2 cup orange blossom/rose water 1 cup of water

2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice



1. Preheat oven to 350F

2. Mix all ingredients

3. Add to a buttered dish

4. With a wet spoon, or hands, flatten down batter in dish so it is smooth and evenly distributed

5. You can add almonds to mark the squares to be cut once it's done

6. Put in oven for at least 15 minutes (though exact time depends on type of oven and depth of dish) 

7. Check that cake is done by inserting a sharp knife into the middle; if it comes out clean, then it's ready


8. Add all ingredients to a pot

9. Bring to a near-boil while constantly stirring on high heat

10. Once sugar has dissolved, or honey has melted down, take off heat

11. Syrup should be clear, but not caramelised

12. Once cake is golden brown on top, take out of oven

13. Cut into squares or diamonds

14. Wait until the cake is lukewarm. Then start pouring the syrup, in small quantities. Allow it to soak and then add more.  

And done and done. Serve with strong coffee and lots of water. It tastes better by day two when the syrup has fully absorbed and each bite is like biting into a bag of flavoured sugar with buttery goodness.


  1. Super informative! Basbousa takes me back to childhood vacations in the Balad for Eid. Well, that and Kahk and the smell of burning dung in the morning country air :)

  2. Just had a co-worker bring some of this in today. It was wonderful!

  3. I just found your blog..and I LOVE it!!Keep up the good work..I will be trying the basbousa out! It's great that you have measurements for the ingredients..because if I ask my mom, she doesn't know..because she does it all by taste and sight!

  4. WOW ! Just found your blog - at 4 am in the morn ! ...and simply love it ! ..your writing style is superb ! ...thanks for taking so much trouble and sharing such lovely recipes. Will be back surley ! ciao !

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Thank you so much for the kind words! I'll be updating my blog soon, so keep checking in.

  5. Ah, I have very fond memories of basbousa from my days in Alexandria. I've tried to make it before, but it never turns out quite as I remember it. I think it's about time to try again!

  6. I just made basbousa the other day. This post is so wonderful!!! It gave a little history on the basbousa, which is what I was wondering about. :) Thanks so much!!!

  7. i was so shocked to eat Basbousa in Bahrain. I thought its indian native food which i grew up eatting in Africa. we are Indian Origins. and my grand parents were making these cakes since 1920's

  8. Of all the basbousa recipes I found on the 'net, I liked the looks of yours best...that syrup looks incredible. I have one question: One cup of coconut is a lot of bulk, and I *have* to leave it out because coconut will kill me dead, it's my scariest allergy. So should I put in more of the grain to make up for the missing mass, or just leave it out?

    1. Hi Minyassa,
      I would leave it out, but maybe add half a cup extra of the semolina.
      let me know if that works out.


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