The food of the whole Islamic world, in one crazy-ambitious cookbook


Some cookbooks, to state the obvious, are a lot more ambitious than others. There are the books, stacks of them, that arrive with dismaying frequency — slight kitchen novellas, cheerful recipe boxes — and whose shelf lives are as short as the time it likely took to produce them. Not so with Anissa Helou’s new cookbook, her ninth, a stately encyclopedia of a book that runs over 500 pages, catalogs more than 300 recipes and the scope of which is breathtaking.

“Feast: Food of the Islamic World,” published in May by Ecco, begins in, well, the beginning, with the birth of Islam around AD 610. As Helou sets both the stage and the table, you begin to realize that the feast before you will encompass nearly 1,500 years, through countries and caliphates, desert caravans and palace kitchens.

Helou grew up in Beirut in a Lebanese-Syrian family and in her 20s moved to London, where she worked at Sotheby’s and then as an art consultant. She eventually turned to cooking, teaching and writing about food; her first book, “Lebanese Cuisine,” was published in 1994. Now 66, Helou has written books that span the cooking of the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Levant and North Africa. Helou’s “Feast” reads like a culmination of decades of travel and research and scholarship — and some pretty magnificent dining.

You will not find, as Helou points out in her matter-of-fact introduction, a lot of recipes for hummus and baklava in this book. What you will find is what she calls a limited selection (a wry understatement) of classics and personal favorites that span a cuisine that encompasses not just the Middle East but also Senegal, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Malaysia and beyond.

So there are basic recipes, for pita bread and paneer, fattoush and kebabs; for more complex dishes, such as many regional variations of curry and biryani; and then the more elaborate preparations, including Moroccan pigeon pie b’stilla, decorated baked kibbeh and a roasted whole baby goat. (Most of the photography is by Kristin Perers, lovely studio and step-by-step shots, or from Helou herself, from her exhaustive travels.)

Embedded in the book among the Nigerian breakfast fritters, the Hyderabadi biryani, the Algerian fish cakes and the Ramadan date cookies are asides that read like short stories — don’t miss the one about how to roast a camel hump in the United Arab Emirates. Which is all to say that Helou’s book is not only a series of lessons about culinary history and technique, but also a profound celebration of the cuisine of a quarter of the world’s population. It’s a beautiful feast of a book.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food

A hefty steak that’s light enough for August
A hefty steak that’s light enough for August

It’s a shame Americans don’t eat much lamb, as in summer, it is especially delicious grilled. Of all the various cuts of lamb, most can be made into chops. Some, like rib chops (from the rack) or loin chops (which look like miniature T-bone steaks), are expensive, but there are cheaper options, like shoulder and sirloin chops. Among reasonably...
11-year-old is taking a lemonade stand to a new level

When life hands you lemons — well, don’t even bother. Sixth-grader Jamaria Crump already has you beat.  It took the 11-year-old one year to perfect her top-secret lemonade recipe along with the pies, cakes and cookies that have made her all-things-lemon business, LemonTopia, a hit.  “I have unicorn lemonade, summer rain...
A pungent reminder of home and hardship
A pungent reminder of home and hardship

When my mom cooked sambal from scratch, she moved with controlled haste. Her eyebrows would furrow as she used her index finger to mix belacan, a pungent shrimp paste, with water. “Open all the windows!” she would suddenly yell, her warning to my brother, father and me that fiery chiles would be hitting her oiled wok in a few minutes. Even...
Coconut turmeric cake looks like a sunset and tastes like tropical paradise
Coconut turmeric cake looks like a sunset and tastes like tropical paradise

Sometimes you know what a dish will taste like before you even start cooking it. For me, this Coconut Turmeric Sweet Bread was not one of those dishes. When I came across the recipe in "Tahini and Turmeric: 101 Middle Eastern Classics - Made Irresistibly Vegan," by Vicky Cohen and Ruth Fox, I didn't know what to expect, but I knew I wanted...
São Paulo's restaurant scene is booming. Here's where to eat now
São Paulo's restaurant scene is booming. Here's where to eat now

All the qualities that make São Paulo Brazil's art hub pop - its sophistication, experimentation, and international and local mix - can be applied to its food scene. Take Futuro Refeitório (Cafeteria of the Future), an ambitious new restaurant with an open kitchen and neon signage inside a former parking garage. Depending on when you...
More Stories