Islamic world plays out on dinner table
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Before Syria was devastated by war, its population displaced and ancient cities ruined, Anissa Helou would show visitors a different side to the country. Starting in Damascus, her tour groups wove north-east through Bosra and Palmyra, admiring the sites before entering Aleppo, a city she would showcase as the Middle East’s “gastronomic capital”.
Seven years later, the celebrated food writer’s new cookbook, Feast, pays homage to the city from the get-go, its cover adorned with a picture of its lamb and sour cherry kebab piled among pine nuts and crisp shards of bread.
The book is Helou’s ninth, and a veritable compendium, with more than 300 recipes. Taken together, the recipes chronicle how a history of trade routes and migration throughout the Islamic world plays out on the dinner table, from simple suppers to festival fare.
Helou, 66, is a Lebanese native with Syrian roots. She grew up in Beirut on a street running down to the sea. But eventually, chafing at the small city’s constraints, she moved to London to begin a life as an art consultant.
It was not until summer 1992 that she thought for the first time of writing a cookbook, the notion striking her one afternoon as she sat at the dinner table with Lebanese friends displaced by the country’s civil war. “It occurred to me then to write a book for all the young people who did not get the chance to experience Lebanese food like I had,” she recalled.
The upper-middle-class Helou household came alive on cooking days. Fish vendors and milkmen brought their freshest produce to the door. Street carts were piled with fruit. “You were just immersed in food,” she said. “Cooking with your mother and your grandmother, you saw everything.”
Lebanese Cuisine, the book that followed, went on to win international acclaim, bringing the dishes of Lebanon to a global audience in much the same way that Madhur Jaffrey has done for Indian food and Edna Lewis for that of America’s South.
The publication of Feast marks a broadening of that endeavour, after Helou realised that no single compendium existed to showcase the recipes of the Muslim world. And so her travels took her through a global crescent of 1.8 billion people, searching for grilled fish in Zanzibar, sweet couscous in Morocco and the best festive lamb in Jordan.
Although Helou herself isn’t Muslim, decades of experience have made her a rare authority on Islamic regions’ cuisines. In the back-cover blurb words of London chef-author Yotam Ottolenghi, she is “just the kind of cook you want by your side when baking a Moroccan flatbread”.
Divided into sections on foods that play a central role in Islamic culture, the book opens with those breads, underscoring their importance in almost all Muslim countries. Usually baked in a pit oven or on a concave metal hotplate, flatbreads can be used in place of cutlery or laid on the plate as a starchy bed for curry or stews.
Against the backdrop of wars in the Middle East and President Donald Trump’s travel ban for residents of five Muslim-majority countries, Helou sees the publication of Feast as a political act. “The Islamic world has such a rich history that I wanted to do something to portray its positive side,” she said. “Especially in this moment, it felt important.”
On trip after trip, she found that food offered a way to connect with the lives of strangers, with the simplest of inquiries yielding surprising encounters. In Aleppo, before the war, a chance meeting with a group of heavily covered women ended with tea and date-stuffed sweets in their home.
In Dakar, it led her to a former prime minister’s home, where she dined on Senegal’s national dish of thieboudienne. The version that made it into Feast features whole grouper or sea bream laced with a spicy marinade of parsley and Aleppo peppers.
“Everywhere you travel, you find food is a unifier,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are and whether you live to eat or eat to live, these dishes are like a connective tissue between people.”
Feast is also a testament to how recipes can morph from country to country, or even between cities, as spices are added and techniques change.
Unable to pick just one, Helou offers recipes for seven breyanis, from the slow-cooked, one-pot dish of Hyderabad to a Kolkata variation with potatoes.
Even the United Arab Emirates has a version, albeit with fewer spices and no meat. “You could see the commonalities, but each time it’s different, wonderful,” Helou said.
But it is the food of the Levant - particularly Lebanon and Syria - for which the book reserves the greatest affection, with references to the grilled Syrian kibbe that Helou ate during childhood visits to her aunt’s house in the town of Majd al-Helou, and a sumac version she ate with friends in Aleppo’s Old City.
Much of the splendour of those areas is destroyed now. Wide swathes of Aleppo, in particular, have been shattered under Syrian government bombardment, and the districts in which she once enjoyed plates of kibbe and quince now resemble a post-apocalyptic ghost town.
But as in centuries and decades before, the city is already rebuilding, and even outside Syria’s borders, mass displacement has caused the recipes found along Helou’s one-time culinary tour route to proliferate, as families now share them in exile.
Even in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, groups of Syrian women gather each evening to prepare the meals of their homeland.