Chef and author Anissa Helou looks back fondly on her youth in Lebanon — and her grandmother's kitchen.
As far back as I can remember, I was my mother’s pest in the kitchen, never leaving her side when she was cooking both to see what she was preparing and to grab a taste, which I rarely managed — she was very strict and did not allow eating between meals. Fortunately, my grandmother was more laid back. When we went to visit her, she would lift me up onto the cool white marble kitchen counter so that I could watch, and even help her cook, although the only thing she ever let me to do was to sort the parsley for tabbouleh. But she always let me taste whatever she was making!
Later, when I was a teenager, the kitchen lost its attraction and I spent my time reading in my room, coming out only for meals, or worse, demanding to have them brought to me. By then I had come under the influence of the French existentialists, and cooking, which I equated with being domesticated, no longer held any appeal for me. Later still, I moved to London and persisted with my idea of refusing to cook. Until, that is, I saw how impressed my boyfriend was with a friend’s cooking. So, on a whim I decided to invite friends to a Lebanese feast. A rash move, given that I had never made a meal before, not to mention that because the civil war was raging in Lebanon, I had no way of getting through to my mother to ask for advice.
Still, I had seen all of the dishes I planned to serve being prepared many times before, and I decided to cook from memory. It worked. My friends loved the food, and I was so delighted with my prowess that I started to entertain frequently, cooking both Lebanese and Western dishes although only for dinner parties, and often feeling guilty about the time I spent in the kitchen rather than scouring auctions and antiques markets (I was an art consultant then), sometimes thinking I should make food my profession.
And one day it came to be. My shift from art to food happened unexpectedly in the early 1990s. I was with a Lebanese friend and my literary agent (I was planning to write a book on collecting), when they started talking about cookbooks. As I listened, I wondered if I shouldn’t be writing a book about Lebanese food. Most of the ones I knew were aimed at readers familiar with the cuisine, and none had any information beyond the recipes. No culinary history or social context. Not even personal stories. I thought of all the young people who had been displaced by the civil war who had not had my good fortune to see everything made at home and who would welcome a cookbook that not only would help them re-create their family's dishes but also would tell them about their culinary traditions. Another reason for the book was to record my mother’s recipes. She was (and still is) a fabulous cook. One day she’d be gone, and her recipes with her.
As luck would have it, my agent knew a publisher who wanted to publish a book on Lebanese food. It all seemed pretty smooth sailing until I started working on it. It took six months to research and write the proposal and another two years to finish the book. I had no idea cookbooks were that hard to write, but I loved the work and it gave me a completely different perspective on my own cuisine. From simply enjoying familiar dishes, I started researching how they developed through history and what the influences were, and wondering how I could modernize them to fit in with our times while still keeping the authentic flavors. I also began to view food as culture, a gateway to understanding people and their countries. At the same time, I realized that with progress as well as war, the civil one in Lebanon when I started, and the present one in Syria, many of the places that I knew and loved will either disappear or change beyond recognition which made it even more imperative for me to record those culinary traditions that are at risk.
And even though the food world is not as glamorous as my first passion, the art world, it is just as fascinating and culturally relevant. And the conviviality within it more than makes up for the lack of glitz!
Anissa Helou is a food writer, art collector, journalist and broadcaster based in London. She is also the author of Modern Mezze (Quadrille Publishing) and Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East (Harper Collins). She blogs at http://www.anissas.com/
The author's grandmother and aunt cooking in Beirut, Lebanon in the late 1950s. Photo: Anissa Helou