Books & Literature

Cookbook Review: Feast: Food of the Islamic World, by Anissa Helou

A stunning new cookbook by London-based chef and author Anissa Helou highlighting the food connections and contrasts across countries from Senegal to Indonesia to provide an essential introduction to Islamic cuisine.

Feast: Food of the Islamic World, the latest publication by London-based chef and author Anissa Helou, is so much more than just a cookbook. At 530 pages, it certainly commands attention on the kitchen table or bookshelf for its generous size (there are over 300 recipes), but it’s the accompanying anecdotes and morsels of information that lift this book to another level.

The work highlights the food connections and contrasts across countries from Senegal to Indonesia and follows Helou’s previous publications (Lebanese Cuisine, Street Café Morocco, Mediterranean Street Food, The Fifth Quarter, Modern Mezze, Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East, Sweet Middle East) to provide an essential introduction to Islamic cuisine.

In her introduction, Helou explains the origins and evolution of the foods of the Islamic world, touching on the development of Islamic cultures and traditions and giving an overview of influences. The book is divided into chapters focused on common ingredients and food types. There’s a mix of classics and Helou’s personal favourites and an explanation of the important occasions in which food is central to the celebrations.

Staples such as bread and rice are covered extensively, with recipes for pancakes, flatbreads, multilayered breads, doughnuts and patterned breads as well as filled pies and breads with toppings. Meat, fish and fresh produce all have their own sections, as do spices and sweets. There are recipes for kebabs, satays, stews, soups, baked dishes and curries. There is plenty to tempt cooks unfamiliar with these styles of cooking, and the recipes are also exciting for those with an adventurous palate wishing to explore further.

Other useful features of the book include a map showing the recipes’ countries of origin and a glossary with detailed information on terms for utensils, ingredients and equipment not likely to be on the radars of some home cooks. The glossary also explains terms that, although they may be familiar, may differ in definition from one country to another. Searching for recipes by ingredient or recipe name is made easy through the inclusion of a comprehensive index (the names of each dish are supplied both in the regional language and in English).

It’s an attractive book. The colour palette of the images is dominated by inky blues and russet tones, with full-page and smaller photographs showing a mix of food preparation, cooking, finished dishes, street food vendors and market stalls. The food styling gives ideas for presentation that make each recipe appear attractive and achievable, and the use of bold and contrasting text colour for the lists of ingredients mean it’s easy to see at a glance what’s needed.

Feast: Food of the Islamic World is a stunning book—beautifully designed, rich in detail and immensely satisfying as a source of culinary inspiration for a simple meal or a banquet for friends or family.

Broad bean salad/shlada del ful (page 416)

This recipe was very easy to follow, and the dish is definitely one we’ll be adding to our list of favourites. Most of the ingredients (with the possible exceptions of broad beans and preserved lemon) will be things already easily accessible. There are several do-ahead components but, overall, it was easy to assemble and present. The salad tasted even better the next day as leftovers and was so good we made it again the following week to use up the last of this year’s broad bean crop.

Tip 1: don’t cook the broad beans too long (sticking to just two or three minutes will ensure the beans retain their consistency, shape and colour).
Tip 2: add the coriander as close to serving as possible, to minimise the chance of the fresh herb losing its flavour with cooking. The preserved lemon could be left on the side, if you have fussy eaters who aren’t fans of its strong taste.

Meatballs in sour cherry sauce/kabab karaz (page 138)

As with the broad bean recipe, several elements of this dish, including the sauce, the meatballs and the chopped herbs, can be prepared beforehand if you’re pressed for time. The Lebanese 7-spice mixture (sabe’ bharat) can be bought ready-made, but I made it from scratch with ingredients I already had in the pantry. This worked well and will be useful for other dishes. You might have to search for frozen sour cherries if you can’t find fresh ones (I think it’s better to use frozen rather than dried, as the frozen ones don’t have additives). Try one of the larger multicultural food wholesalers.

This recipe made a lot of sauce, so I doubled the meatball mix. If you don’t want to do that, you could reserve some of the sauce and use it later. The dish is easy to assemble. I served the meatballs with rice as well as with the pita that was recommended in the recipe. The meatballs ended up very firm (they’re made from 100% lean lamb). My guests enjoyed the sour cherry sauce, but I can imagine that it might not be to everyone’s taste. You could adjust the balance of flavours if that suits your preferences better. This dish was not ideal to eat as a leftover due to the firmness of the meatballs, which just increased with reheating.

Moroccan rice pudding/rozz b’lehlib (page 482)

Another simple but delicious dish. The only ingredient you might need to buy is the orange blossom water, if you don’t have that already in the pantry. You need to be patient (there’s some time spent stirring and keeping an eye on the rice as it cooks, to prevent sticking), but there are no tricky cooking techniques or skills needed for this one. The result was a delicately flavoured dessert that could be eaten on its own or paired with fresh or stewed fruit.

Reviewed by: Jo Vabolis
Twitter: @JoVabolis

Rating out of 10: 10

Distributed by: Bloomsbury Publishing (Australia)
Released: November 2018
RRP: $80.00

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