In many ways, calling a cookbook Feast: Food Of The Islamic World is rather unusual. Cookbooks are often clustered under cuisine types – Italian or Indian or Chinese or Persian, rather than by religion. And the reason for this is simple: sharing the same faith does not necessarily mean you share the same food.
But with her latest cookbook, author Anissa Helou set out with a firm idea in mind.
“I wanted to give a positive image of Islam given how vilified both the religion and the people practising it were becoming following the rise of Isis in some countries. I thought that writing about the food culture of majority Muslim countries and the history of the religion through the lens of food would be an accessible way to make people view Islam and Muslims in a more appealing way,” she says in an e-mail interview.
Anissa is a seasoned cookbook author who grew up in Beirut (her father is Syrian and her mother Lebanese), before moving to London in her 20s. She has worked at Sotheby’s and at one point was even an art adviser to the Kuwaiti royal family, offering input on Islamic art.
In 1992, she switched trajectory after realising that many Lebanese people displaced by the country’s civil war had lost touch with their culinary roots. This spurred her to put together and publish her first cookbook Lebanese Cuisine in 1994, which was shortlisted for the Andre Simon award.
Anissa has since gone on to publish many cookbooks, including Street Cafe Morocco, Mediterranean Street Food and Levant: Recipes and Memories From The Middle East.
Feast took Anissa three years to research, write and do the recipe-testing. The result is a 530-page mammoth tome featuring over 300 meticulously curated, well-researched recipes from Islamic regions around the globe.
Anissa’s strength is in weaving fascinating tales around the meals featured in the book. Many recipes are prefaced with her own personal experiences of eating them – stories like meeting with the great-great grandson of the last ruler of Lucknow to understand the history of Calcutta biryani (they use potatoes in the dish) and going on a culinary tour in UAE with the ruler’s daughter, offer unforgettable glimpses and rich tales of the longstanding cultural values that hold many cuisines together.
These narratives are interspersed with recipes that provide more factual or historical information – like how the Lebanese caraway pudding is made in plentiful quantities when a baby is born. There is an easy mix of realism and fairytale whimsy stirred in the cauldron here, and the resultant hodgepodge is incredibly easy to digest and makes for fascinating reading.
“I like to place recipes in a context, be it historical, social or simply anecdotal. It makes them more appealing to both the person who just wants to read them and the cook who would like to cook them, offering a richer culinary experience,” she says.
Researching the book took Anissa through many countries and regions – in the book, she talks about choosing a baby camel to make roasted camel hump (yes, it’s a thing!) in Dubai, learning how to make the perfect dumpukht biryani from a noblewoman in Hyderabad and eating klepon (onde onde) in a friend’s home in Indonesia. Although she hasn’t made it to Malaysia yet, Anissa says that’s on her wishlist. “I would like to get to know and taste Malaysian food,” she says.
Anissa says there were some places that she felt she couldn’t travel to by herself for safety reasons, like Afghanistan, Syria and Mali but otherwise her travels were dotted with a rich tapestry of experiences.
“I travelled during Ramadan to different countries, and in Cairo, Egypt, I discovered what they call Ma’idat al-Rahman (in Arabic meaning the meal of the one who takes pity), where rich patrons pay for iftar meals that are laid out right in the street for poor people who cannot afford to buy much food. All these experiences were fascinating,” she says.
Although the book is so expansive that it will take you many days to fully digest the recipes here, Anissa says she actually had to leave many recipes out and if she had her way, she would have liked to have produced three volumes of the cookbook so that she could fit all the recipes in!
“The reason to leave out many recipes is that the book would have been far too large and possibly not so well balanced. I chose what I consider to be a good balance of classics, personal favourites and little known or little covered dishes,” she says
So you’ll find recipes for all sorts of delicious-sounding dishes, some that may be familiar to you (harissa, sambal terasi, Turkish kebabs, tabbouleh and baklava) and many that will be totally foreign – quail tagine with sweet potatoes, Berber meat bread, Indian Scotch eggs and shanklish salad.
There is also a spiritual slant running through the core of this book. In chapter introductions and some recipe prefaces, you’ll find plenty of information about Islamic history – from its birth through to its dissemination to many parts of the world.
If you’re a non-Muslim (and even if you’re a Muslim) this makes for engrossing reading as you’ll discover all sorts of information about Islamic culinary influences, like the lucrative Arabian spice trade, the pistachio and olive oil famed in Aleppo, and even the narrative behind the first Arab cookbook – the Kitab al-Tabikh, which depicted recipes from the court of ninth-century Baghdad.
It is an eye-opening world view, one that we don’t always get a glimpse into, written in an engaging, non-didactic way that makes it all the more appealing. It is also clearly part of Anissa’s master plan to engage and perhaps more pertinently – enhance – the global understanding of Islam and by extension, the food eaten by the people who practise the religion.
“I wanted to show a positive image of Islam and Muslims and plant a desire to find out more about the culture, history and life in the various countries I covered and beyond,” she says.