Anissa Helou's new cookbook looks at world of Islam through 300 recipes

Anissa Helou wrote eight more books after Lebanese Cuisine, covering topics as wide-ranging as Mediterranean street food and offal.
Anissa Helou wrote eight more books after Lebanese Cuisine, covering topics as wide-ranging as Mediterranean street food and offal.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

(NYTIMES) -  It hadn’t crossed Anissa Helou’s mind to write a cookbook until she found herself at a dinner party in London with a table of people who, like her, were born in Lebanon and now lived far from home, discussing the paucity of Lebanese cookbooks.

This was in the summer of 1992. Back then, she was working as an art consultant.

But the conversation struck her. She realised that an entire generation of Lebanese people who had been uprooted by the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, had also lost access to the food of their homeland.

She issued a corrective in the form of her first cookbook, Lebanese Cuisine, published in 1994. To her surprise, it was shortlisted for the Andre Simon award, which honours British food and drink books.

“I was a non-entity then,” she said. “Nobody knew me.”

Helou, 66, is far from a non-entity now — a chef, a cooking teacher and a rather prolific cookbook writer. She wrote eight more books after Lebanese Cuisine, covering topics as wide-ranging as Mediterranean street food and offal.

Her ninth cookbook, Feast: Food Of The Islamic World, was published by Ecco at the end of May. At more than 500 pages, the book is backbreaking in size. In it, Helou traces a line from Islam’s advent in 610 to the glories of the Mughal dynasty. The book’s 300 recipes span continents, traveling to far-flung parts of the world where Islam spread, from Xinjiang to Zanzibar.

Different treatments for deceptively similar dishes reveal the expansiveness of the foodways throughout North Africa, the Middle East and far beyond. In Morocco, she writes, rice pudding is typically milk-based and flavoured with orange blossom water. The rice pudding of Turkey, though, usually involves no milk at all, and it’s laced with saffron.

“Feast” was born out of a sense of disturbance she had felt since 2013, she said, when she saw Muslims vilified in the news coverage surrounding the Arab Spring and the rise of Isis. “Through this book, I wanted to open up a world that people might not know, but in a positive and approachable way,” she said.

Helou is not Muslim, but she spent the first two decades of her life in the predominantly Muslim part of Beirut. Though her Syrian father and Lebanese mother raised her and her four siblings as Christians, she wasn’t particularly religious.

When she was a child, her mother would do all the cooking, ritualistically pounding pink lamb in a white marble mortar before chopping it to make kibbe, the pudgy ovals of bulgur, onion and lamb.

Seeing only women in the kitchen gave Helou the impression that cooking was a gendered trap, a notion that clashed with her burgeoning politics. She was just 16 when she was drawn to the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

She decamped for London in 1973, pursuing her career in the art world. “When I moved to London, I told my boyfriend that he shouldn’t expect to me to cook for him because I was very liberated, having read all the French existentialists,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be domesticated.”

She reneged on her anti-cooking stance in 1975, after her boyfriend introduced her to an American friend of his, “a glamorous blond lady,” she recalled. “She produced a very nice dinner. My boyfriend was impressed. I looked at him and said, ‘Oops! Maybe I should cook.’”

She began by hosting elaborate dinner parties where she made her mother’s tabbouleh and hummus. It was a period when Britain was just becoming acquainted with Lebanese cuisine. Decades later, foods from the Middle East would be ubiquitous there.

“In the last 10 years there has been an explosion of Middle Eastern food in the UK,” said Claudia Roden, a British authority on the cuisine of the region. It has resulted, she explained, in a glut of Middle Eastern cookbooks. What sets Helou apart from her contemporaries is a curiosity she roots in historical precision.

“Whereas other writers are likely to modernise or do their own takes and innovations, I believe Anissa is a traditionalist and a purist,” Ms Roden said.

For “Feast,” Helou travelled to more countries than she could count, including some she had never been to, like Indonesia and Senegal. But political instability barred her from visiting certain countries, including Syria, where she has not gone since October 2010. The dish on the book’s cover, kabab karaz, comes from Aleppo, Syria, a place that was once famous for its pepper, but is now better known for its condition of ruin.

Kabab karaz is a dish of ground lamb meatballs cooked in a pool of pitted sour cherries, raw cane sugar and pomegranate molasses. The meatballs take on the appearance of tiny marbles glossed with ruby-red sauce; the dish’s tartness is energetic, but not disorienting. Once the meatballs are tender, you pile them on a bed of pita bread triangles drizzled with butter, dusting them with chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Helou considers Aleppo the “gastronomic capital of the Middle East,” she said.

And kabab karaz epitomizes the soul of the city. “The food culture of Aleppo is probably the most interesting of the food cultures of the Middle East,” she said. “It’s steeped in culinary lore.”

She got the recipe from Maria Gaspard-Samra, a chef who taught cooking classes in Aleppo before the city’s destruction.

If Aleppo has now become synonymous with decay, Helou would do her part to keep its signature recipe alive. She started by writing it down.

Meatballs in Sour Cherry Sauce (Kabab Karaz)

Total time: 45 minutes
Serves 3 to 4 people

For the meatballs

450g lean ground lamb, from the leg or shoulder
3/4 tsp fine sea salt
1/2 tsp Lebanese 7-spice mixture or allspice
1 Tsp (15g) unsalted butter

For the cherry sauce
1kg fresh or frozen pitted sour cherries
1 Tsp raw cane sugar
1 Tsp pomegranate molasses

For assembly
 2 to 3 pita breads, each split into 2 disks and cut into medium triangles
1 Tap (15g) unsalted butter, melted
A few sprigs flat-leaf parsley, most of the bottom stems discarded, finely chopped
1/4 cup (50g) pine nuts, toasted in a hot oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly golden

1. Make the meatballs: Mix the lamb, salt and spice mixture (or allspice) and shape into small balls, the size of large marbles. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and saute the meatballs just until lightly browned. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
2. Put the cherries, sugar and pomegranate molasses in a pot large enough to eventually hold the meatballs and bring to a bubble over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and, stirring occasionally, simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Add the meatballs and simmer for another 15 minutes, until tender.
3. Assemble the dish: Arrange the pita bread triangles all over a serving platter, coarse side up, making sure the pointed ends are nicely arranged on the outside. Drizzle the melted butter all over the bread. Spoon the meat and sauce over the bread. Sprinkle the chopped parsley all over, then the toasted pine nuts. Serve immediately.

Notes: To make the Lebanese 7-spice mixture, combine 1 Tsp each of finely ground black pepper, ground allspice and ground cinnamon with 1 tsp each ground coriander, ground cloves, ground ginger and freshly grated nutmeg. This makes about 1/4 cup (25g); transfer the remaining spice mixture to an airtight container and store away from both heat and light. Use leftover spice mixture in tomato sauce and marinades for grilled meat or chicken, or on tabbouleh.

If you can’t find fresh sour cherries, use dried sour cherries and rehydrate them by soaking them overnight in water: 2 cups (500ml) water for 400g pitted dried sour cherries. Add the soaking water along with the cherries when you make the sauce.