BOOK REVIEW: Cookbook takes reader on a journey of Islamic discovery
Renowned authority Anissa Helou’s tome encompasses the development of a diverse range of cuisines and cultures
Feast – Food of the Islamic World is part cookbook, part encyclopaedia. Anissa Helou is a renowned authority on the cuisine of North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Her latest book traverses the Islamic world from Senegal in West Africa to Timor in Indonesia via the Middle East, Pakistan, India and parts of China. It is a huge undertaking, a generous 500 pages, encompassing the development of a diverse range of cuisines and cultures.
Helou charts the birth and spread of Islam from the 7th century and the culinary developments that emerged alongside the empires and various caliphs such as the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal dynasty. She explains how Islam spread along the established spice trade route that was controlled by Arabs.
Helou also describes the festivals that punctuate the Islamic calendar and how the associated food traditions find expression in the kitchens of different parts of the Islamic world.
Feast is divided into chapters on bread, roasting animals, rice and grains, fish, spices, fresh produce and desserts and sweets. Each recipe is accompanied by its country of origin and anecdotes of how Helou encountered the dish. I relished the travelogue nature of the book, as Helou takes readers into the homes of her family and friends in Lebanon and Syria (she was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and Syrian father and made frequent trips to Syria). We travel along with her to souks, markets and kitchens where she meets professional chefs and domestic cooks whose recipes she learns and shares.
Poignantly, many of her recipes derive from countries no longer on the map for tourists — Syria and Yemen — for example. Helou writes with sadness about the destruction of Aleppo, which she previously frequented. The city had the title of gastronomic capital of the Middle East from the 11th century onwards and had developed a distinct cuisine.
The chapter on bread is lengthy as befits its status within Islamic cuisine. Helou observes that bread holds a sacred place in Islam in which it is considered a sin to let bread fall on the floor. One of the most intriguing breads in the chapter is an Uzbek flatbread, Non, which looks especially pretty with patterns stamped onto the surface with a chekish, a wooden mallet spiked with sharp, metal nails. This bread is placed under the heads of newborns to wish them a long, healthy life.
Helou charts the development of popular recipes such as fatteh — a dish composed of toasted or fried bread topped with meat, chickpeas, yoghurt and toasted pine nuts. It takes its name from the Arabic verb fatta, to crumble, as the bread is broken into pieces during preparation. Readers are treated to varying recipes from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, each with its own interpretation of the basic method of preparation. For cooks whose interest in food goes beyond simply getting a meal on the table, this makes for fascinating reading and opens the door to trying out these variants at home.
Relating her recipes to their place in the Islamic world, Helou explains that the Arabian Gulf version of fatteh is called tharid, purported to be the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite dish and is a staple of the iftar meal during Ramadan. Fast-breaking noodle favourites from Zanzibar and Indonesia are also shared.
The grain chapter includes popular dishes such as biryani with readers spoilt for choice with seven versions ranging from Kolkata and Hyderabad to Indonesia. Iranian rice recipes instruct newcomers on how to achieve the desirable, crisp tah-dig crust.
The chapter entitled The Whole Beast is intriguing. Named for the custom of slaughtering an animal at the end of Ramadan, it includes instructions for roasting a baby goat or stuffing a whole lamb. It also explains how to roast a camel hump as is customary in the United Arab Emirates. Helou’s description of whole baby camels being placed in pits in a seated position and slow roasted overnight is not for the faint-hearted or those toying with vegetarianism.
While informing readers that fish dishes are generally simple in the Muslim world, Helou then takes us to Indonesia where she uncovers a complex set of recipes for crab curry and another for fish head curry. An enticing ravioli-with-fish recipe from Kuwait has a list of ingredients that runs to almost a full page.
With more than 300 recipes, Feast will keep the most diligent home cook busy for years. It not only enables readers to travel the Islamic world through its recipes, but also to try out a vast array of dishes back home.
It is a joy to read a cookbook that so comprehensively illustrates how a religion celebrates its culture through food, with the regional variation of its recipes revealing much about its history.