‘Feast’ describes an Islamic culinary tradition that is rich and complex

Read this cookbook: “Feast: Food of the Islamic World” by Anissa Helou (Ecco, $60)

By Wendell Brock

Since the founding of Islam by the prophet Muhammad in 610 AD, the food of the Muslim world has soaked up the influences of Persians, Ottomans and Mughals, leaving a trail of disparate yet similar dishes throughout the world.

With “Feast,” the chef and food writer Anissa Helou weaves a glorious tapestry depicting a cuisine that started under the date trees of Mecca, then fanned out to cover everything from Senegalese fish stews to Moroccan tagines to Indian biryanis.

In this painstakingly researched labor of love, she amasses more than 300 recipes. They are spread over 544 pages and smartly organized as elemental chapters on bread, meat, rice and other grains, fish, produce, spices, sweets.

A landmark effort that combines historical perspective with personal observation, “Feast” gives exacting instructions on making pita and paratha, kebabs and kibbeh, falafel and fattoush, couscous and curry.

Oftentimes, a dish like biryani is differentiated across cultures, like a map of rice. Did you know there are Hyderabadi, Awadhi, Calcutta, Malabar, Emirati and Indonesian versions of this spectacular and aromatic concoction?

“The Whole Beast” chapter includes a compendium of ways to thread meat on skewers, be it minced or cubed: Moroccan Meat Kebabs, Turkish Kebabs, Lebanese Kebabs, Indian Galawati Kebabs, Hyderabadi Kebabs, Kashgar Kebabs, Afghani Sikh Kebabs, Indian Ground Meat Kebabs and Chicken Kebabs. Helou even describes her many-legged pursuit of a perfectly roasted camel hump.

And after the lentils, chickpeas, eggplant and favas, there is no paucity of sweets: Date halva from the Arabian Gulf keeps company with carrot halva from India. Pistachio ice cream from Lebanon is mentioned in the same breath as Orange Blossom Jam. And there is a remarkable mix of rice puddings, representing India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia.

Born in Lebanon and raised as a Christian, Helou read French existentialism when she was young, pursued a career in art, and, as she tells it in Mayukh Sen's lovely New York Times profile, learned to cook only reluctantly.

She published her first cookbook, “Lebanese Cuisine,” in 1994. And now here we are at her ninth volume, possibly her most important to date. Given the chaos of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, “Feast” preserves recipes that might well be lost with the drumbeat of time.

And yet it remains clear-eyed and true: a magnificent cookbook conjuring a culinary diaspora that is vast, rich, intense, aromatic, profound. It will make you powerfully hungry, for food and adventure, for years to come.

Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock) .

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