Culture

A book in English on ethnic food in the French capital

Review

BEIRUT: Want to know the secret of Tunisia's super spicy harissa, made from roasted chilies, cumin and garlic? Or the precise proportions of ras al-hanout, a North African blend of 35 different spices? Or the aphrodisiac component of argan oil, prepared from the nuts of trees that grow only in southwestern Morocco? Or the Persian roots that influenced Aleppo's famed pairing of grilled meats and black cherries? Or the trick to making the ultimate sayyadieh?

"The Ethnic Paris Cookbook," just published by Charlotte Puckette and Olivia Kiang-Snaije, has the answers to all these questions and more.

The secret to harissa - in addition to finding flavorful anchos or guajillo chili peppers - is preparing the paste a day in advance so the flavors - including ground cumin, coriander, fennel seed and caraway seed - blend thoroughly. The trick to a vibrant and full-bodied sayyadieh is sauteing the onions until they are deep brown and nearly burned, then adding cinnamon sticks and cumin seeds.

A tribute to the French culinary melting pot and a celebration of immigration in a country where it is culturally enriching but currently politically fraught, "The Ethnic Paris Cookbook" is a lively and intrepid journey through the streets of Paris. Puckette and Snaije have trolled through every nook and cranny, every market stall and corner greengrocer along with every seemingly isolated enclave in the city to uncover the epicurean delights that have boomeranged back from France's former colonies abroad. The book covers cuisines that can be traced back to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, Cameroon, Senegal, Mauritius, Guadeloupe, Lebanon, Syria and more. It is not an exercise in fusion food but a compendium of curious finds and affectionate discoveries.

Puckette and Snaije have collected a veritable treasure trove of secret recipes and guarded kitchen histories. Each recipe is tethered to the central, conceptual spine of the book through anecdotes and interviews. The authors have gathered insight not only from well-known chefs and cookbook writers (such as Farouk Mardam-Bey, Adel Raad, Hakim Mazouz or Fatema Hal) but also from artists and writers (such as the novelist Hoda Barakat or the painter and sculptor Abderrahim Yamou) who have left their homelands and remade them both lovingly and longingly in the kitchens of their exile.

Cookbooks are big business. Walk into any major bookstore and you are likely to find an assortment of gorgeously slick culinary tomes. From Jamie Oliver's "The Naked Chef" and its sequels to the many Gordon Ramsay books to Reza Mahammad's "Rice, Spice and All Things Nice," these are coffee table affairs with stylish photography fit for the design sensibilities of the Wallpaper magazine set. "The Ethnic Paris Cookbook," with its retro-simple title (begging to go down as a classic like "The Preppy Handbook" and its illegitimate heir, "The Hipster Handbook"), is a far craftier endeavor.

Puckette is a chef and caterer who trained at the venerable  Cordon Bleue. Snaije is an Alexandria-born journalist who, for the sake of full disclosure, contributes to The Daily Star from Paris and more recently from London. They enlisted Dinah Diwan, an illustrator from Lebanon who lives in Paris and whips up fine mezze in her downtime, to provide the artwork for the book. The result is a collage-style presentation as colorful as a children's book, and as fun.

In addition to its mouth-watering recipes for maamoul, ouzi or chicken tagine, "The Ethnic Paris Cookbook" is packed with delightful facts and figures. It reveals, for example, that a significant number of Paris' greengrocers hail from the Tunisian island of Djerba. The infamous kibbeh nayye - made from ground lamb, cracked wheat, black pepper, ground cardamom, crushed coriander seeds and served raw - is indeed, according to Puckette and Snaije, an aphrodisiac. When the Civil War broke out in Lebanon in 1975, there were less than 6,000 Lebanese living in France and no more than three restaurants serving Lebanese cuisine. As the war continued for 15 years, the Lebanese population swelled to more than 155,000 and Paris now hosts some 130 Lebanese restaurants.

"The Ethnic Paris Cookbook" isn't for purists, heritage adherents or strict nationalists. Many of the recipes have been invented, tweaked or endlessly adapted by their makers. But even a quick flip through these 100 dishes inspires a diverse menu well suited to the summer months - imagine a light orange and cumin salad with a kick of harissa or a homemade pistachio ice cream perfumed with mastic. And considering the current bombing campaign in Lebanon, which is unconscionably targeting sites of leisure, cooking at home might well be a good idea this season.

Puckette and Snaije's "The Ethnic Paris Cookbook" is out now from DK Publishing

 

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