Book Review: Feast – Food of the Islamic World by Anissa Helou
Title: Feast – Food of the Islamic World
Author: Anissa Helou
Publisher: Ecco (29 May 2018)
Pages: 544 (Hardcover)
Reviewed by Shabana Zahoor
How do you feel when you get your eager hands on a multi-cuisine cookbook on Islamic worlds? The food which nourishes the soul, binds the family, brings smiles to friends and gives that moment of enlightenment that life is good.
This is exactly how I felt when I got a notification from my beloved library that my reserved item – Feast: Food of the Islamic World– had arrived and was ready for pick up. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I tucked my three-year old toddler into the pram and rushed to the library to lay my hands on this beautifully wrapped tome (the library had put a transparent cover to it to keep it neat), with its thoughtfully listed recipe after recipe.
At the beginning, this book by Arissa Helou, a London based chef and cookbook writer who specialises in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and North African cuisines, seemed overwhelming, but slowly it took me to a serene, calm journey of soulful food intertwined with equally beautiful snippets of Islamic food history here and there. As you read along, you discover that it is not just a recipe book but a food journey in itself. You travel from street to street, country to country whiffing the best of the gastronomic smells wrapped in magic cloaks. Some you can imagine, some are like friends you befriend at first sight and invite over to your place to have a lovely chat over chai.
The book is divided into several sections like Bread; The Whole Beast; Rice; Grains; Pasta and Legumes; The Sea, etc.Recipes in the main courses are fascinating. There are some dishes home cooks can easily prepare (but there are some, like whole lamb, that could be challenging for home-based cooks). The same applies to the “Rice” section. I would like to try dumpukht as the process is new to me and I have the urge to have a mouth watering and soulful biryani. Iranian jewelled rice is a win-win too and promises the same heavenly experience as dumpukht. Dolmas are appetizing and can be replicated by skilled cooks. There are also a variety of kebabs, from charcoal-grilled to tawa-fried – the way we love our kebabs. This can never go wrong. Not prone to the sweet tooth, I will pass up the desserts but would definitely like to mention baklavas and kunafes which are as mouth-watering as they can be.
Personally I find this work could have been better presented if the book had been divided into more than one volume. This kind of humongous work needs more space for more recipes (the author could have eschewed the need to cut down on the text or details as it happens in the case of some recipes) and also each recipe, not just some, should have come with a final dish picture. That, I feel, is a must. It helps readers to visualise the dishes. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
There are some other minor elements that I found wanting in the book. For example, in one of the biryani recipes (Kachi biryani), the meat is said to be cooked before putting it to dum. This contradicts the making of this kind of biryani. Similarly, in another recipe,, the country of origin is not mentioned. Apart from these minor omissions, the book is spectacular – beautifully designed and laid out.
I’ve already fallen in love with this book and read it end to end in one sitting. Kind of tough, right? I know, but this is what this kind of a book does to you; by the time you have turned the last page of the book, you leave with one or two recipes to try it out in your kitchen right away!
Feast isakeeper. Go ahead and include it in your personal library to refer to it time and again whenever you feel like having soulful food from the Islamic world.
When I laid my hands on this beautiful book, the first thing I did was to smell it, not because it is a cookery book and I will get a delicious whiff straight from the kebabs, breads, lamb roasts, dolmas but to confirm if I was that lucky first recipient of this library book. I would like to believe it to be so because of the crispness of the pages, that smell of the new book when you open it, with no splatter and stains but carrying the fragrance of pure bliss.
Shabana Zahoor is a mother and homemaker.