“Her range of knowledge and unparalleled authority make her just the kind of cook you want by your side when baking a Moroccan flatbread, preparing an Indonesian satay and anything else along the way.”— Yotam Ottolenghi
Anissa Helou’s new book “Feast: Food Of The Islamic World” seeks to cover the depth and breadth of the Islamic food world through recipes from Syria to Pakistan.
Islamic food culture is similar to Jewish food culture (Helou’s cookbook even scored the oft-requested Yotam Ottolenghi blurb on its cover, quoted above) in that both religions present a way of life in which food is intertwined with matters of religious observance. For both Jews and Muslims, a sprinkle of za’atar is generally more than just a sprinkle of za’atar. It is about taking part in a generations-old tradition.
While Helou may not be Muslim herself, she has spent her life traveling all over North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, observing and documenting and adding to the culinary canon foods like balaleet and tarator that have not had their celebratory days in the sun — yet.
I spoke to Helou about the process of writing the book, the intersection between Jewish and Islamic food culture, and how she penetrated a food culture that rarely opens itself up to outsiders.
Shira Feder: This cookbook is incredible! What was your goal in writing it?
Anissa Helou: Islam and Muslims have been vilified in the West for quite some time now. Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone, but the coverage of terrorist attacks seems to have an insidious effect of making people associate Islam and Muslims with terrorism, kind of wholesale, whereas similar attacks enacted by others, are in general neither depicted nor perceived in the same light. It began after 9/11 and following the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS, the negative feelings towards the religion and its adherents have been escalating. I find this unfair.
There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, most of whom are the same as everyone else. [Islam] has spawned fabulous civilizations and cultures, and I thought that by writing a book about the food culture of the Muslim world and its history, I would encourage readers to view both the religion and its people in a positive light, making them want to find out more about its history and culture.
Do you find that there is some crossover between Jewish and Islamic foods? A lot of the dietary laws are the same, and I find that many Jewish Sephardic dishes are reminiscent of some of the dishes you discuss here, falling under the umbrella of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean foods.
The Islamic fast day of ‘ashura [the tenth day of the first month] has its roots in the Jewish Yom Kippur. And of course there are similar dietary laws [between kashruth and halal]. The first people who welcomed the Prophet Mohammed when he fled Mecca were the Jews in the city of Yatrib, now Medina. I don’t really like to use the umbrella of ‘Middle Eastern food,’ but Sephardic Jews are ‘cousins’ of Middle Easterners and share many dishes, although the interpretations are different.
Is there a respectful way for people to approach eating food from cultures that are not their own?
Respect should be a fundamental part of who we are. There are things that we may not be aware of that we will do and that will offend other cultures — gestures, table manners, words, and so on.
For instance at the table, most Arabs eat with their hand, often from a communal plate. They use the right hand, because the left is used for non-clean stuff. They never lick their fingers after taking a mouthful because they will again pick up food from the communal plate. Also, they never reach to another side of the plate to pick their food unless the host/ess wants them to choose a prized morsel for an honored guest. Diners usually stick to the part of the plate that is in front of them.
By watching those you are eating with, you can avoid being disrespectful or tactless. I personally always wait for my dining companions to start, then I follow their example.
You were brought up as a Christian in Beirut. How did it feel to be both an observer of a foreign culture while documenting it?
I wouldn’t say that Muslim culture was foreign to me, as we shared our lives with our Muslim neighbors. My parents always lived in the Muslim part of Beirut and my school was in the Jewish quarter, so I was never in a Christian enclave. And when I was an art consultant, I spent a lot of time in Kuwait, at different times of the year including Ramadan and Eid. So, I was very familiar with the religion, its history and its lore and customs. That said, researching the book opened my eyes even more, and of course I visited many countries that were unfamiliar to me, which was totally fascinating.
There’s an MFK Fisher quote that goes “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” Do you think the act of sharing food can bring people together?
Absolutely. Almost everyone loves to eat and to talk about food and as soon as I would broach the subject on my travel, to those I knew or those I didn’t, people would open up to me and either talk to me, sometimes at length, or even invite me into their homes, so definitely a unifier.
Your research for this book must have been extensive! What is one thing you learned that surprised you?
There were lots of variations on techniques that were new to me. One of the most surprising was how in some biryanis, meat is placed raw (previously marinated) under the rice to cook at the same time. When I saw a Begum in Hyderabad do this, I wondered if the meat would cook in the same time it took the rice to be done. Admittedly she had added green papaya to tenderize it, but still. It did. Not only that, but it was very tender. Amazing.
Also, in Zanzibar I saw the mother of my guide, Ismail, make bread with a very wet dough, which she then baked in a pan over a wood fire and let it purposefully stick to the pan before inverting the pan over the fire to colour and crisp up the top of the bread. I found that fascinating. There were many more examples like this where I was familiar with a dish or a technique up to a certain point but not with the variation I was observing.
Islamic food culture has often been called impenetrable to outsiders. Your cookbook is foundational in making that world comprehensive and open to outsiders. How do you feel about being the gatekeeper to the food secrets of the Islamic world?
I feel great about it. From when I started to write about food, my aim has been to both inform and inspire people to explore and cook from the food cultures I wrote about. And somehow I think that with this book, I may have reached a higher lever as it is the most ambitious and most comprehensive that I have written so far.
As with Jewish food, religion and culture and recipes are deeply meshed together in Islamic culture. How did this affect how you researched the book?
It meant a lot more reading outside the food angle — history, books about Islam and even parts of the Quran, all of which was fascinating and brought more depth to my work.
Shira Feder is a writer. You can reach her at @shirafeder or at firstname.lastname@example.org