In her prolific career as a cookery writer, the acclaimed Syrian-Lebanese food expert Anissa Helou (of whom this blog published a profile last year) has written authoritative books on Lebanese cuisine, Mediterranean savoury baking, modern mezze, offal cookery, and the street food of Morocco and of the Mediterranean more generally.
Helou's latest, seventh, book Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East (Harper Collins, in hardback and on Kindle) is a wide-ranging and ambitious work covering an entire region and a lifetime of food memories. Helou draws on her long experience of Middle Eastern food from her early childhood to her recent travels in the region.
The book has an attractive cover design based on patterned classic tiles with the shades of blue so characteristic of the Middle East. In her introduction Helou explains the term Levant and why for the purposes of her book she defines it as comprising her two home countries, Lebanon and Syria, plus Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Palestine. She acknowledges that some may find the inclusion of Iran controversial. But Iran has had a "sweeping influence" over the cookery of the Middle East and North Africa and she feels justified in including some of its classic northern dishes.
Another possibly controversial choice is the exclusion of Israel. Helou explains: "As everyone knows, Israel is a very young state and many dishes that are now described as Israeli were, and still are, originally Palestinian, Lebanese or Egyptian, and I prefer to give the original rather than the assumed version of a dish where I can."
There are few pictures in the 346 pages of Helou's book. This is unusual in an age when cookery books tend to be ever more lavishly illustrated, but Levant does not suffer as a result. The few photographs in Levant are in black and white. One shows Anissa standing in front of one side of al-Dar in Mashta el-Helou, the ancestral home in Syria of her late father. She and her family would spend their summers there.
Another picture is of Helou's maternal grandmother and aunt in action in their kitchen in Beirut. helou also includes a photo of a "sexy ambulant green grocer in Beirut", his stall groaning with fresh produce.
Anissa's interest in food and cookery began as a child, when she watched her mother and other women of the family preparing dishes. Her mother, Laurice Helou, comes from the lovely Lebanese village of Rechmaya perched above a dramatic valley in the Shouf mountains and is "an invaluable fount of knowledge as far as the country's cooking is concerned."
Levant is a treasure trove of insights and tips and Helou is refreshingly opinionated. She states: "The Silver Shore in Tripoli is another of my favourite fish restaurants. and Tripoli is my favourite city in Lebanon now because it hasn't lost its character like Beirut has." And she is always open to experimentation. Her recipe for Samkeh Harrah - Spicy Fish - is a hybrid of the recipe of her of mother (with no tahini sauce) and the Silver Shore (which has tahini sauce, and less coriander).
As regards tabbuleh, the iconic parsley, burghul and tomato salad, it may have "gone global" but it is rare to find it made properly in the West with the correct ratio of parsley and herbs to burghul. "Somehow it is not natural for Westerners to regard parsley as an essential ingredient when they are used to it as a garnish." Helou is convinced that the Turkish version of tabbuleh is at the root of how tabbuleh came to be misinterpreted in the West as a grain salad. Whereas it is a herb salad.
During her culinary travels Helou has made numerous friends, who have offered her hospitality and invited her into their kitchens: the acknowledgements at the end of the book run to three pages. I was pleased to see a couple of recipes from a mutual friend, the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani (on whose traditional Palestinian food Anissa wrote in the Financial Times). One is Mutabbal Qara' - Pumpkin dip made with tahini, garlic and lemon (both Helou and Kelani have separately concluded that butternut squash is preferable to pumpkin). The other is Mussakhkhan - Sumac Chicken Wraps.
Anissa Helou beside al-Dar in Mashta el-Helou
Levant is organised differently from conventional cookery books which begin with starters, move on to mains and end with desserts. Her six chapters are named after locations and settings: En Famille; On the Farm; In the Souq; At the Restaurant; At the Bakery; and At the Sweet-maker's. This way of organising the book works well.
In the 'At the Restaurant' chapter Helou takes the reader on a tour of favourite restaurants scattered through the Levant. Although Wild Chicory in Olive Oil with Caremelised Onions - or Hindbeh bil-Zeyt - is on the menu at most Lebanese restaurants Helou only orders it at Chez Sami on the beach north of Beirut "because theirs is almost as good as my mother's".
The book is highly evocative. Helou recalls a wonderful moment near Aleppo at Apamea, a stunning Roman site, where she came across farmers "burning" frikeh, green cracked wheat. "The last time I had seen farmers doing this was back in 1982, near Qalb Lozeh, a fabuouls Byzantine church now surrounded by ugly concrete modern houses". When frikeh is cooked in the broth of the boiled lamb or chicken it is served with, some cooks add a little rice to make the frikeh lighter but "I prefer it without as I love the distinctive smoky flavour."
When Helou was growing up, her father took the family only to elegant resaturants. As she grew older and became independent she was free to explore street food and simple cafes/restaurants specialising in one particular dish or a specific meal such as breakfast. One of her favourites is the basic El-Soussi, a simple breakfast cafe in West Beirut which specialises in fatteh. Fatteh is a composite dish made of different layers starting with toasted or fried pita bread and ending with yoghurt mixed with crushed garlic and garnished with toasted pine nuts. When it comes to ful medammes, the breakfast dish of boiled fava beans originally from Egypt, Helou would wait until she as in Alepppo and could go to Hajj Abdo, "a wonderful old man whose ful medammes is the best".
Helou says that although Damascus has many restaurants few of them are good. An exception is Khawali which was until recently the only excellent restaurant in town. Now there is also Naranj "the restaurant of choice for the top echelon of Syrian society", where Bashar Assad entertained Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Helou used to love going to Naranj until she realised it was the place of choice of the Syrian regime "who wined and dined their guests there while their army and shabbiha were killing the people." Regardless, the food "was, and I suppose still is, exquisite."
When Anissa wrote her first book Lebanese Cuisine (initially published by Grub Street in 1994), one of her aims was to address the needs of young Lebanese who had been displaced from their country by the civil war and had not had the chance to learn how to cook Lebanese dishes from observing their mothers in the kitchen.
Now it is her father's country, Syria, that is tearing itself apart in civil war. Millions of Syrians have been uprooted, taking refuge outside the country or in different regions of Syria. Cities and cultures are being destroyed.
In the years before the war in Syria erupted Helou used to take small groups to Syria on culinary tours. The members of such tours had the chance to get intimately acquainted with Syrian cuisine in food markets, restaurants, homes and kitchens. Anissa's book is rich in recipes and food from Syria, and is a precious record of the food culture. It is of course the terrible loss of lives and material destruction that are the main concern in the Syrian civil war. In the longer term it will become more evident what the toll has also been on culture, including the magnificent culinary traditions of for example Aleppo.