It hadn’t crossed Anissa Helou’s mind to write a cookbook until she found herself at a dinner party in London with a table of people who, like her, were born in Lebanon and now lived far from home, discussing the paucity of Lebanese cookbooks.
This was in the summer of 1992. Back then, Helou was working as an art consultant.
But the conversation struck her. She realized that an entire generation of Lebanese people who had been uprooted by the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, had also lost access to the food of their homeland.
She issued a corrective in the form of her first cookbook, “Lebanese Cuisine,” published in 1994. To her surprise, it was shortlisted for the André Simon award, which honors British food and drink books.
“I was a nonentity then,” Helou said. “Nobody knew me.”
Helou, 66, is far from a nonentity now — a chef, a cooking teacher and a rather prolific cookbook writer. She wrote eight more books after “Lebanese Cuisine,” covering topics as wide-ranging as Mediterranean street food and offal.
Her ninth cookbook, “Feast: Food of the Islamic World,” was published by Ecco at the end of May. At over 500 pages, the book is backbreaking in size. In it, Helou traces a line from Islam’s advent in 610 to the glories of the Mughal dynasty. The book’s 300 recipes span continents, traveling to far-flung parts of the world where Islam spread, from Xinjiang to Zanzibar.
Different treatments for deceptively similar dishes reveal the expansiveness of the foodways throughout North Africa, the Middle East and far beyond. In Morocco, she writes, rice pudding is typically milk-based and flavored with orange blossom water. The rice pudding of Turkey, though, usually involves no milk at all, and it’s laced with saffron.
“Feast” was born out of a sense of disturbance she had felt since 2013, she said, when she saw Muslims vilified in the news coverage surrounding the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. “Through this book, I wanted to open up a world that people might not know, but in a positive and approachable way,” she said.
“In the last 10 years there has been an explosion of Middle Eastern food in the U.K.,” said Claudia Roden, a British authority on the cuisine of the region. It has resulted, she explained, in a glut of Middle Eastern cookbooks.
What sets Helou apart from her contemporaries is a curiosity she roots in historical precision.
“Whereas other writers are likely to modernize or do their own takes and innovations, I believe Anissa is a traditionalist and a purist,” Roden said.
By Mayukh Sen