Breaking Bread With Anissa Helou

We talked to Award-winning chef and author, Anissa Helou about her marvellous book; the role of food; her travels; Ramadan dishes and bread
Anissa Helou
ITP Images
Anissa Helou
April 29, 2020
By Tiffany Eslick

What role do you think food can play in society?
Food is culture. It’s a way for someone to get to know a country and its people. It’s also a good way to bring people together. This idea of culinary diplomacy is a wonderful tool and it should and can be used effectively. It’s the reason I wrote Feast, because Islam was being vilified by the press, politicians and everything. I thought, “How I can talk about the religion, Muslim people and their traditions in a positive light?”

As Yotam Ottolenghi said about your work: “Telling a genuine food story that covers a quarter of the world’s population is a mighty task...” How long did Feast take to do?
Something like six years!

Would you set out to accomplish such a feat again?

It is evident that Feast is so well researched. Did you travel to all the countries you mention in the book?
I travelled to most of them. There were a few countries like those in The Gulf that I had already been to, so I didn’t specifically need to travel again for the book. But I went to Indonesia, Senegal, China, Zanzibar – all over. I met with many different people: chefs, home cooks and street food vendors. It was fascinating.

How did you find the right people to share the right recipes for your book?
I worked with guides in some countries, but I kind of have a knack for always finding the right people. And I’m good at reading recipes and being able to tell if they will work or not. If one person’s recipe didn’t work, I would find one from someone else. But no matter what, I would and will always cross reference – from my huge collection of cookbooks, as well as from sources online. I try to see as many people as possible cooking the recipes I need. When I travel, I try to taste as much as I can, so that I can test out these dishes at home.

What did/do you enjoy about your food-related travels?
To travel for food the way I do now, because I am always researching, is amazing. Almost everybody opens up to you as they all like to talk about food. Even those who don’t live to eat the way I do. You can go anywhere and everywhere and it’s totally fascinating. I get to know a country deeply and I connect with people in a special way. It’s a marvellous conduit.

Was there one country in particular that surprised you with its culture and food?
I loved Zanzibar. I thought Stone Town was wonderful; the people were amazing and the food shows cross-cultural influences, given the country’s history of belonging to Oman. I visited during Ramadan and I was invited into so many homes for meals. Before the fast begins, there’s lots of life on the streets: women prepare roti, crusty sesame breads over wood fires and triangle-shaped doughnuts flavoured with cardamom, that are lovely. During Ramadan, they break their fast with noodles, similar to Chinese noodles. They’re soft and thick and either fried or sautéed, sweet as well as savoury and interesting.

Feast features many recipes that are specific to the Holy Month of Ramadan. Looking at all the countries you visited, did you find similarities or differences in the meals made during this period?
Across the world, people observe Ramadan in the same way in that they break their fast at sunset. In some countries ‘normal’ dishes are served. In others you’ll find specific foods and rituals. Most people in the Middle East seem to cook (a lot more than usual) for Ramadan and they receive family and friends at home.

In Indonesia, I noticed that people bought ready-made meals from the street markets. In Pakistan, it’s all about fried food – people eat a lot of samosas and pakoras. In Syria, the apricot drink Qamar al-Din is popular and in Egypt, tahina is eaten at the beginning of a meal. Whenever and wherever I watched people breaking their fasts, it amazed me how serene they were.

You’ve also included Emirati recipes in Feast. What is your experience with the cuisine?
I was totally blown over by Emirati food. Despite its narrow repertoire, it is interesting, beautiful and delicious. You’ll see influences from India and Iran in the dishes, but the cuisine is very much its own. I love all the different rice, meat and sweets. What’s sad, is that it is not well known around the world. I think it needs to be promoted.

How does a lesser-known cuisine make a name for itself?
Generally, the way cuisines make it into the mainstream is through restaurants. What you find though, is that all over Africa, Iran and the Middle East, the best food is being cooked at home. So how do you promote this? I think there needs to be more writing about the respective food, for example in books, articles, social media posts and then of course coverage on TV. All this is needed to reach a wider audience.

‘Middle Eastern’ cuisine is booming. What are your thoughts on this?
I think the term is too broad. Essentially what people understand as Middle Eastern cuisine is Lebanese food, because it’s the best marketed and thus the most well-known at the moment. Many people don’t understand the difference. The term should be used as a description for the way food is eaten in the region (like mezze), and for its healthy aspects of lots of vegetable dishes, salads and fresh produce.

It’s definitely evolving. What’s funny is that when I published Lebanese Cuisine in 1994, I tried to get a leading retailer in London to stock freekeh – they ignored me. Twenty-six years later – it’s the global ingredient of the moment.