Levant - Recipes and Memories from the Middle East
By Anissa Helou


Levant is proof that cookbooks don't need to have photos in order to be enticing: my mouth was watering as I pored over this one.

Anissa Helou was raised on the Muslim side of Beirut, Lebanon (although her family were Greek Orthodox) and after moving to London, Britain, she worked for Sotheby's auction house, before turning to cooking. Levant is as much a memoir about her culinary influences and the dishes she's tasted on her travels as it is a source for recipes, and it's these descriptions that make the book so interesting. Helou writes about the fun she and her siblings had while trampling grapes with their feet at the family vineyard in Bhamdoun, near Beirut, and the grape "leather" her mother and aunt made out of the crushed fruit; of eating tiny birds ("seriously non PC," she admits) with her family at a restaurant in Zahle, a town northeast of the Lebanese capital; and of how ghazl el-banat - Arabic candyfloss - is similar to the caramel paste used as a depilatory on her and her sisters when they were teenagers.

Helou's recipes are varied and with many of them she writes about where she's tasted her favourite version, which makes me want to visit some of these places. She gives recipes for meat kebabs in cherry sauce from Aleppo; wheat and meat porridge from northern Iran; the stuffed pancakes she ate in Damascus; wild chicory in olive oil with caramelised onions that she will only order at Chez Sami (in Beirut) and no other restaurant (because theirs is "almost as good as my mother's"); and a pumpkin dip she learned to make from her Palestinian singer friend, Reem Kelani.