When compiling Feast – Food of the Islamic World (2018), a cookbook with more than 500 pages and 300-plus recipes, Anissa Helou had be strict with herself about what she could include, or else it would have expanded to more than one volume. After all, the “Islamic world” encompasses, as she writes in the introduction, “Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt in North Africa, finishing in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India in South Asia, and Xinjiang province and Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
“In between are Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Turkey and Iran in the Levant; the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Arabian Gulf. On the fringes are countries where the influences are more diffuse, such as Zanzibar, Somalia, Senegal, Nigeria, Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.”
Helou writes that “Islam was born at the beginning of the seventh century in one of the world’s harshest climates, in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia […] when the Prophet Muhammad began receiving divine revelations from the angel Gabriel. However, it wasn’t until the year 622 or 1 AH (after Hijrah, or exile) that the Islamic calendar marks the official start of the religion when, after a dispute with his tribe, Prophet Muhammad fled Mecca to the city of Yathrib, now known as Medina.
“Medina was and still is an oasis in the desert, but though there was water, there wouldn’t have been much variety available in terms of food, and their diet was mainly limited to dates from the palm trees growing in the oasis, meat and dairy from their flocks of sheep, camel and goat; and bread from grain they either grew or imported in their trade caravans from the fertile countries of the Levant and beyond.”
Travelling not only spread the religion; it opened the inhabitants up to new ingredients and cooking techniques. “They expanded their culinary repertoire because of easy access to more varied produce [...] The Muslims also acquired new culinary knowledge from the locals they ruled over, which they absorbed into their own cuisine.”
The book is worth buying for its chapter on breads, which includes filled breads and bread-based dishes. “To say that bread is the staff of life may be a cliché, but the expression holds true in all three major religions,” Helou writes. “And in Islam bread holds an even more sacred place – it is considered a sin to let bread fall on the floor, and if it does, it is immediately picked up and forgiveness is asked of God for having allowed the bread to be desecrated.”
Recipes in this chapter include anjero (Somali pancakes, similar to the injeera eaten in Ethiopia); North African multilayered breads; naan; Zanzibari doughnuts; Uzbek flatbread, which has a pretty pattern on the top made with a chekich – a small mallet embedded with nails; Moroccan pigeon pie; and Turkish boreks.
In the meat chapter, called The Whole Beast, which has an amusing essay on Helou’s quest for the ultimate camel hump, there are recipes for Aceh-style goat curry; lamb tagine with potatoes and peas; meatballs in sour cherry sauce; Pakistani chicken curry; and Turkish dumplings with garlicky yogurt.