Monday, December 24, 2012

The Lebanese-Syrian food writer & expert Anissa Helou: A Profile

Anissa Helou puts Mediterranean cookery on the world's table
Susannah Tarbush
[the original of an article that appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat daily newspaper on 23 December 2012] 

Anissa Helou gives a cookery class in her loft in Shoreditch, East London

The Lebanese-Syrian cookery writer, journalist and broadcaster Anissa Helou has had an extraordinary rise in the world of international cookery writing in the years since her first book Lebanese Cuisine was published by Grub Street in London in 1994. The book recieved many accolades and was shorlisted for the prestigious André Simon award.

Helou, who has lived in London for many years, is today one of the world’s leading experts on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. She has six books to her name and her articles frequently appear in publications such as the Financial Times and an array of food magazines.

She often appears on radio and TV, and is much in demand at food and book festivals and other events around the world. She also has a widely-read blog on food and on her many travels, illustrated with her own high quality photographs.(In a typically humorous vein the blog also features videos, often in black and white, of Anissa's choice of "bellydancer of the month".)

Now Helou is preparing her seventh book, Levant, which is due to be published by Harper Collins in mid-2013. (The full title of the book on Amazon is currently  Going Home: A Taste of the Levant and Beyond).

 paperback edition of Lebanese Cuisine

Helou was born to a Lebanese mother, and a Syrian father from the beautifully-situated town of Mashta el-Helou which lies in mountains about 233 km north of Damascus and 45 km from Tartous. She told Al-Hayat in an interview that her forthcoming book is “more personal than the previous ones, in that I reminisce a little more about my life in Syria and Lebanon when young and how I ate or shopped with my mother or watched my Syrian aunt prepare everything on the farm."

She adds that the new book has “recipes from Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, as well as a few from Iran. They are mainly favourite recipes with stories from the past and others from my travels in the region.” The recipes are “grouped by type of eating: on the farm, at the sweet-maker's, in the souk and so on, with a glossary at the end explaining about essential ingredients.”

Anissa’s aunt ‘Ammto Zahiyeh lived in Mashta el-Helou “in a lovely old stone house that was built by her husband in the late 19th century.” Anissa’s family used to stay with her when they were visiting from Lebanon.

“We spent our summers there, picking fruit - such as figs, pomegranates and jujube - off the tree and helping her dry or preserve them." Helou's forthcoming book also describes how her aunt made malban - ropes of thick grape jelly in which walnuts are embedded. In addition, "'Ammto Zayhiyeh made tannur bread every few days for us, and my mother taught her to make manaqish tannur. To this day I cannot pass by a tannur bakery without wanting to buy a bread. If I tell the baker about my aunt, he - or she, it is often women bakers by the roadside - will give me a loaf.” Anissa adds: “ I just love Syrian and other Arab as well as Turkish and Iranian hospitality and generosity.

"From my uncle’s wife 'Ammto Jamileh, who was very fat, we learned to love grilled kibbeh balls, and maqlubeh. In fact, she taught my mother to do it and I included it in my Lebanese Cuisine book, and will do so in the forthcoming one."

Anissa Helou in Mashta Al-Helou in the early 1980s on the rooftop of her Aunt's Zahiyeh's house where figs etc were dried

Some years ago Helou began to organise and lead food and cookery tours of certain countries, including tours to Syria entitled “Culinary delights in Damascus and Aleppo.” But for now her programme of tours has been halted.

Helou explains: “The events in Syria have quite naturally put a stop to my Syrian tours which were very successful - with all those who came on the tours loving Syrian and Syrian people, and of course the food. But I have to say, I have been so affected by what is going on there and the horror of it that I decided not to do any more culinary tours for a while. However, I will be starting again in autumn 2013, hopefully to Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco.”

Helou is “deeply touched by what is going on in Syria and I follow the news and what activists are posting very closely.” She appears in the mainstream media, such as BBC Radio, and on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, following and spreading news of the situation in Syria and expressing her views on the war.

Helou says: “The people who are being killed, arrested, tortured in Syria are like the people I met, worked with or ate with on my travels there.” She gives the example of a woman named Bessbuss “who is the kindest woman ever, and who I met because she chops parsley for a living which she sells to a shop in Souk el-Tanabel in Damascus.“

Anissa visited Bessbuss when she was writing an article on markets for Saveur magazine. “Bessbuss had two young boys who were 9 and 11 when I met them. They must be young teenagers now. They live in Kafar Sousseh in a modest house with the breeze bocks exposed like many of the houses that are being bombed on a daily basis.”

She adds: “I always think of them, or the bakers I have been to, or the taxi drivers I have been with, or the butchers I have spoken with or photographed. All these people are like the demonstrators when the revolution was peaceful, and many are like the Free Syrian Army. I think also of the women I have cooked with and their children when I watch the horrifying videos from activists, or the tragic news”.

Helou says: “The situation now is disastrous. The desolation in areas the regime is attacking is totally shocking. I can’t get over how a government can attack and kill its own population the way that this monstrous regime is doing and I can’t get over their brutality and lack of humanity."

She hopes the regime falls soon and that, after a possible period of chaos, “Syrians will be able to steer their country towards democracy and fair representation. As for those who I know there, I prefer not to be too closely in touch with them because of my activism and not wanting to get them into trouble, but I also know many people who have left and I am in touch with them.”

Although Helou is now a major figure in Middle Eastern cuisine, her first career was not in food writing but in art and art consultancy. She left Lebanon at the age of 21 to study interior design in London. She did the Works of Art course at the famous London auction house Sotheby’s, and became Sotheby’s Middle East representative. In the 1970s she divided her time between an antiques shop she owned in Paris, and an art and antiques consultancy in London. Between 1978 and 1986 she lived in Kuwait, advising members of the ruling family on building up their collections of Islamic art. She also became a collector of art and antiques herself.

 Anissa Helou: constantly on the move in the culinary world

Did Helou have some game plan to conquer the world of cookery writing when her first book was published 18 years ago? Helou says she had no big plan at the time. “My main aim in writing Lebanese Cuisine was to record my mother’s recipes - she is a fabulous cook - for myself and for all those young Lebanese who had been displaced by the civil war and who had not had my luck when I was growing up to see my mother and grandmother and my Syrian aunt cook traditional dishes everyday, and preserve or pickle bountiful produce.” She had also wanted to write "a book that Europeans could easily use to cook Lebanese dishes.”

The success of the book “came as a nice and welcome surprise. I had worked really hard at it - and because I had enjoyed researching and writing it and testing the recipes and I had met so many lovely people in the food world, I decided to continue and write more cookbooks."

Helou’s second book, Street Cafe Morocco, was published in 1998, and was followed by Mediterranean Street Food in 2002. In 2004 came her fourth book The Fifth Quarter: An Offal Cookbook (the title comes from the fact that the French refer to offal as “the fifth quarter” of an animal). An updated and expanded edition of this book, Offal: The Fifth Quarter, was published in 2011. Helou’s fifth book Modern Mezze, and sixth, Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, both appeared in 2007.

Helou is keen on offal for two main reasons. “The first is that I come from a culture where no food is wasted”. The second is that offal organs are in many cases the most delicate cuts of meat, with very interesting textures. She has said her favourite types of offal are testicles, brains and sweetbreads. 

Helou is well-known for her adventurousness in eating unusual foods: she writes on her blog about the experience. She has eaten zebu hump in Brazil, live ants at Noma’s temporary restaurant at London hotel Claridges, and animal penises at a restaurant in Beijing that specialises in serving the male organ of animals such as ox, lamb, monkey and deer. Asked what strange foods she hopes to try in the future, she says she is “definitely expecting to eat weird stuff if I make it to Mongolia next year – it is one of my travel dreams, together with Peru.”

 Helou has lived for the past decade in a two-storey building which used to be a factory, in the Shoreditch area of East London. The top floor is a wonderful open-plan large well-equipped kitchen area in which she gives cookery classes and demonstrations and holds supper clubs. In 2011 she was “cook in residence” at Leighton House during the Nour Festival of North African and Middle Eastern Arts in London. During the Shubbak Festival in London in summer 2011 she held several supper clubs at her home, each one featuring food from a different Arab country. She says these ventures were “a great success”, and notes that this year’s Nour Festival again had supper club nights. “It’s great to see that I have initiated the inclusion of food in this festival and possibly others.”

She also does special meals by request to go with the launch of a book – for example she cooked a lunch for the widow and mother of the late New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid for the posthumous publication of his memoirs by Granta.

Helou has for the past 20 years attended the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an international conference on food history held annually since 1981 in the famous university city. “I always enjoy seeing everybody and listening to the lectures and finding out what my friends from abroad are up to.” At last year’s symposium she and a friend presented a compilation of clips and slide shows of people stuffing and wrapping various foods.

Since the Symposium became a charity, “I have been more involved, having become a trustee. I am on the meals sub-committee and every year we design the meals to go with the theme.” The theme of the 2013 Oxford Symposium will be Food and Material Culture: “I have suggested inviting a quite amazing chef from Sao Paolo, Helena Rizzo, to do our Saturday night dinner.”

 the three degrees of Koshari Street spicing: mild, hot and "mad"

Anisaa is sometimes asked to act as an adviser or consultant on food-related projects. She is currently helping some Egyptians develop a street food concept in London for the traditional Egyptian street food koshari. Helou developed the menu and recipes for Koshari Street and helped find premises in central London. After some pilot events in recent weeks, Koshari Street will open by March as a “kind of smart hole-in-the-wall place. We will also do events.”

Asked to predict future international food trends, Helou says: “Street food made chic is definitely on the up as is the ‘casualization’ of fine dining. As for ingredients, chefs will go on scouring the globe for new and exciting ingredients to incorporate into their repertoire. Both fine and regular dining are becoming more and more globalised as far as ingredients are concerned.”

1 comment:

Beau Pace said...

Never too late to send New Year wishes. Nice post.