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. The shape of the pasta resembles a bird's tongue, hence the name. 

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, normally lesan al asfour and some liver to nibble on. BLISS!  

Tante Lula's favourite

Fast forward a few decades later, and I'm roaming the house of my great aunt in Cairo. Tante Lula, known for her beauty and elegance, has a beautiful story about how her husband (who died years ago), fell madly in love with her after seeing her painted portrait in a gallery. 

Unfortunately, growing up in Canada meant we didn't get to know her in her better days, though we heard all the stories. By the time I finally got a chance to make up for lost time, she was well into her 90s...but as feisty as ever. 

She was suffering from mild health problems, mainly due to age. But my cousin, her daughter, continued to worry about her and supervise what she was eating. In addition to a weakness for sweets, particularly chocolates, Tante Lula, loved to smoke a cigarette. Of course, she was told not to. But despite all the neighbourhood stores being warned to NOT sell cigarettes to her, and despite her being quasi-immobile, she would sneak out during a 'nap', shuffle to the store, and buy herself a pack. 

Always elegant in a flowing dress and her hair up, Tante Lula would sleep and traipse around the house with her favourite jewellery. Shiny rings, numerous necklaces, loud bracelets...she told me it kept her busy. And so she would make herself up and steal a cigarette and enjoy that precious moment before her next meal.

And that meal was almost always lesan al alsfour. The cook would always make sure there was a big pot of it in the kitchen, so on her days off, Tante Lula would be sure to have a bowl of it. 

It's fair to say that soup is what kept her going for years until her time came to an end in 2020 (pre-Covid).

Origin of Orzo

Lesan al asfour, is actually a pasta hailing from Italy. Its real name is orzo, meaning barley in Italian, because it resembles the grain. The pasta itself is made from semolina flour. 

Over the years, it has become a staple of cooking across Southern Europe and North Africa, and the Middle East. As one source notes, it can go by different names including "kritharaki, manestra, rosa marina, reiskornpasta, or pasto gallo". 

The Italian community - which had been trickling into Egypt since the time of Napoleon I (1820s onwards), primarily in Alexandria - had nearly 55,000 people just before World War II, making the second largest immigrant community in the country. 

Their cooking traditions and ingredients have over the years become intertwined with local Egyptian cuisine. Some of these have already been covered by me in earlier posts such as:

Macarona bil beshamel 

Ma'sa ha

I'm giving you the recipe that includes a homemade broth; but you can use store-bought chicken broth or  a vegetable-based one. 

RECIPE

Total Preparation Time: 1 hour (including broth)

Yield: 4 bowls

INGREDIENTS:

Broth
1 whole chicken
1 onion peeled and quartered
salt / pepper
cinnamon stick 

Soup

2 cups lesan al asfour/orzo dry
1 tablespoon butter
salt/pepper to taste
1/2 cup of milk (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

Broth
1. Add chicken, onions, salt, pepper, and cinnamon stick to pot.

2. Add enough water to cover chicken.

3. Leave to cook for about 90 minutes, or until chicken is well cooked and broth is flavourful.

Soup

4. Add butter to a soup pot









5. Once butter is melted add orzo

6. Keep stirring until the majority of the orzo has turned golden brown.









7. Add just enough broth to cover the pasta 

8. Leave to cook; the orzo will swell-up.

9. If you like a more liquidy soup, add a bit more broth, or add milk. 

*This recipe was featured on Twinkl, an international educational publisher

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