Saturday, June 23, 2007

anissa helou brings mezze into the 21st century

The food writer Anissa Helou remembers how, when she was a girl in Beirut, her father would celebrate his arrival back from a long business trip by taking the family in his Buick to the town of Zahleh. There they would cross a bridge to one of the riverside mezze restaurants.

Her father would order as many as 20 different mezzes. He did not order from the menu, but quizzed the waiter about what was in season and particularly fresh that day. “The waiters brought tray after tray of small dishes, all cleverly stacked so that the food stayed intact inside,” Helou writes in the introduction to her latest book “Modern Mezze”, published in London by Quadrille.

She describes the gorgeously garnished dishes: “The raw meats with fresh herbs, the dips with sprinklings of brightly coloured spices or pomegranate seeds, the salads with tiny cubes of shiny red tomatoes, the savoury pastries with bright yellow lemon wedges and so on. The feast was as much for the eye as for the appetite.”

Helou’s abiding interest in the visual impact of dishes is much in evidence in “Modern Mezze” with its sensuous photographs by Vanessa Courtier. The cover illustration shows a seductive-looking Turkish dish of grilled red peppers, glistening with a dressing of vinegar and garlic (unusually, no oil is included in the recipe) and scattered with thyme leaves. The pages of the book are bursting with contrasting colors and textures. Even a simple dish of carrots cooked with green lentils looks enormously appealing mounded in a bowl and topped with Greek yoghurt and garlic, and a sprig of dill.

“Modern Mezze” contains more than 100 recipes from Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey and Greece. Helou defines mezze as “leisurely savoring a tremendous selection of small dishes”. While mezze is part of the culinary tradition of the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, Helou points out that this is not so in Morocco. There, the nearest equivalent is “salades variees”, a variety of salads present on the table throughout a meal. “These salads are a wonderful if unorthodox addition to a mezze spread.”

It would be impracticable for a home cook, given the pressures of time and space, to attempt to recreate the vast array of dishes one finds in a restaurant mezze. In the home-style mezze presented in Helou’s book there are fewer dishes, served in larger quantities. Helou helpfully suggests 12 mezze menus for when mezze is to be the starter course, and 12 more substantial menus in cases when mezze is a meal in itself. In addition to the prepared mezze dishes, there are various musts for the mezze table: bread of one or more types, crudités, olives , pickles, roasted nuts and seeds, to which can be added cheese, labne balls, thinly sliced pasturma (the only cured meat in the Middle East) and, if you are feeling extravagant, dried mullet’s roe (bottarga). Helou says that sea urchins also make a splendid mezze when they are in season.

“Modern Mezze” is both inspiring and practical. There are step-by step photo sequences of some of the more complicated techniques. These include making and stuffing Lebanese kibbe (minced meat and burghul) balls, and filling and folding filo pastry sheets to make spinach triangles or Turkish borek.

The recipes are divided into seven main sections: dips, salads, pastries and mini wraps, pulses and grains, vegetable dishes, fish and shellfish, and chicken wings, kibbe and other meat. Helou draws on her wide experience to give many useful tips. She also gives advice on the purchase of ingredients. For example the burghul bought in Middle Eastern shops is “far superior” to any found in health food shops and supermarkets.

Some of the dishes in “Modern Mezze” are familiar to diners and supermarket shoppers in the West, such as hommus, baba ghannuge, tabbule, stuffed vine leaves and falafel. Helou adds her expertise and special touches to her recipes for these standards. Many other recipes in her book are for unusual mezzes that Helou has found on her travels. One’s interest is piqued by recipes for dishes such as chilli and herb dip, mackerel and hazelnut dip, white tabbule, beetroot salad decorated with tahini sauce, broad bean risotto, sardines chermula from Morocco and Turkish mussel brochettes. There are recipes for two raw kibbe dishes. One is a spicy Turkish version; the other, from southern Lebanon, includes dried rosebuds and grated citrus zest.

Helou has devised some mezzes. One is a Lebanese version of bruschetta, toasted bread served with various toppings. Rather than top the bread the Italian way, she uses typical Lebanese or Turkish sandwich fillings, such as labne with chopped olives and mint, aubergine salad, feta cheese salad or za’tar (thyme and sesame dip).

Another of her suggestions is “za’tar bites” in which za’tar is put atop small circles of puff pastry , instead of the usual bread base. When baked, the circles rise like mini-top hats. The same principle can be used to make spicy lamb bites or aubergine mixture bites. She also describes a Lebanese version of sushi made by cutting up a rolled feta cheese, cucumber and mint wrap.

“Modern Mezze” is the fifth cookery book of the prolific Helou, who is also a radio and TV broadcaster and regularly writes for the Saturday edition of the Financial Times. She arrived on the cookery book scene in 1994 with “Lebanese Cuisine”, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Andre Simon award. This was followed by “Street Cafe Morocco”, “Mediterranean Street Food” and “The Fifth Quarter” (named after the French term for offal). “Modern Mezze” is not her only book to appear this year: “Savory Baking from the Mediterranean: Focaccia, Flatbreads, Rusks, Tarts & Other Breads” will be published in New York in August by William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint.

Before becoming a food writer, Helou enjoyed a career in the world of art and collecting. Born in Beirut to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, she moved to London at the age of 21 and became the Middle East representative of the London-based auction house Sotheby’s. She also owned and ran an antique shop in Paris. Between 1978 and 1986 she lived in Kuwait advising collectors, including members of the ruling family, on building their holdings of Islamic and other art. At the same time she assembled her own remarkable collection which went under the hammer at London auction house Christie’s in 1999 when she sold her house in Clapham, South London.

She then bought a two-storey warehouse loft in Shoreditch, an area of East London that buzzes with new art galleries and restaurants. Helou has transformed the loft into a minimalist light and airy space with a state-of-the-art kitchen. Here she set up Anissa’s School, where she gives demonstration classes on Mediterranean cookery.

Helou’s entrepreneurial spirit is opening up new horizons. In December she is to conduct her first culinary tour, taking a group of up to 12 travelers to the Moroccan cities of Marrakesh and Essaouria. Next year, culinary trips are planned to Damascus and Aleppo; Palermo and Siracusa; Istanbul, and Fez. She is also planning Anisssa’s Kitchen, a London delicatessen specializing in the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Anissa’s branded food products.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette, June 18 2007

Anissa Helou in her kitchen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Leighton House is the venue for the Nour Festival of Arts. Featuring Anissa Helou and Reem Kelani. Visit