BEIRUT: One of the most delightful stories from Anissa Helou’s new book “Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East,” recounts the first time she made lubieh bi zeit – green beans in olive oil and tomato sauce – a simple staple of Lebanese home cooking.
A 16-year-old Helou and her sisters were having an illicit midnight feast that ended in a cake fight, which they then spent most of the night having to clean before their parents woke up. In the morning, Helou’s mother congratulated her on the lubieh, oblivious to the mayhem that had torn through the kitchen as she slept.
This short introduction into an even shorter recipe – lubieh bi zeit requires just five ingredients – sets the tone for Helou’s excellent introduction to the cooking of the Levant, which she has expanded to include not only Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, but Turkey and northern Iran as well.
Food is inextricably linked to memory, and memories, when expressed as stories, convey so much more than a mere list of ingredients with instructions for preparation.
It’s not that the cake fight contains the secret to making excellent lubieh bi zeit; rather, it illuminates one corner of the world Helou is building for her readers. Anecdote by anecdote, she guides us through family kitchen, farm, souk, restaurant, bakery and sweetmaker’s shop, patiently explaining the role of seasonality and ritual without veering into pedantry.
As a novice cook, the fact that “Levant” does not include photographs was daunting at first, but having lived in Lebanon and Syria for some time, I knew what most of the dishes were supposed to look and taste like.
The book is addressed, however, to Western readers who are unfamiliar with the region and its cuisine. Would they be able to recreate, say, chicken fatteh or sour-cherry kibbeh based solely on Helou’s descriptions?
And so, in the spirit of food-centered storytelling – or plot-driven cooking, as the case may be – I set out to make my own memories while testing this perceived weakness through an international virtual cook-off.
I emailed one of my best friends from back home, Natanya, an experienced amateur cook currently residing in Baltimore, Maryland.
Natanya is the kind of woman who wakes up at the crack of dawn to bake her own bread and then bike to work, whereas I inevitably oversleep, grab a mankousheh and take a taxi when I could easily walk to the office.
I was hoping her natural exuberance would make up for her lack of familiarity with Levantine food, and my inherent laziness would offset my advantage of having lived here and tasted most of the dishes.
It was also a good excuse to collaborate with someone who I’ve seen less and less over the years, as school, work, family and distance take their tolls.
I proposed to Natanya that we both make a dish from the book, and then exchange pictures and compare our approaches and any adjustments or substitutions to the recipe.
“YES YES YES YES!!” she wrote back almost immediately. “Cooking challenges are my favorite.”
I asked her how ambitious she wanted to be, on a scale from lentil soup to sour-cherry kibbeh.
“As adventurous as I can possibly be without having to drive to a remote location to get ingredients,” she replied.
In the end we agreed on samkeh harra, spicy fish, which was sufficiently difficult but did not require many specialty ingredients.
Despite being a lazy, inexperienced cook, I am very susceptible to competition, and insisted on buying fresh whole sea bream instead of frozen or prepared filets.
As soon as I arrived home in the early evening and laid out my ingredients, however, the power cut. For the next three hours, I chopped, mixed, seasoned, filleted and fried by candlelight, fueled by Almaza and anger.
The power came back just as I finished, but I was in no mood to eat the meal I’d labored to prepare. Instead, I showered the stench of fish off me and brought my samkeh harra to a friend’s house, where it was a big hit.
Moreover, the story of the cook-off, the electricity outage, the candle over the frying pan (actually a small candelabra, which paints an even more ridiculous scene), garnered laughs and several jokes about power cuts being the real secret to Lebanese cooking.
The next day, I opened my inbox to find several beautiful pictures of Natanya’s samkeh harra, which she called “yum” but “not photogenic.” She also noted that she had been unable to find pine nuts or Aleppo pepper so she used walnuts, almonds and pepper flakes instead.
When we Skyped later that night, Natanya gave me the full rundown. Certain common Levantine techniques such as cooking with tahini, cooking down the coriander and using ground nuts as a thickener were new to her, but she was happy to find that apart from the tahini, which she bought from a specialty shop, she was able to find all the ingredients from her local supermarket.
“Overall I liked it, but I think for people who don’t eat tahini regularly it can be overpowering,” she concluded. “It wasn’t pretty but it was good. ... It was nice because it expanded my idea of Lebanese food.”
Natanya’s only complaint was that the filet fell apart. I discovered that based on Helou’s description, she had been imagining a whole filet covered with sauce, whereas samkeh harra usually has a consistency closer to stew and is often eaten with bread. It would have been useful to note this in the recipe.
While food can bring people together, the act of cooking is a shared adventure which, in time, becomes a fond memory, a bond, and, with repetition, a tradition.
When the recipe chat ended, Natanya and I spent another hour talking about our lives, our jobs, studies, relationships and choices, me at my kitchen table and she at hers on the other side of the world.
Helou’s book is not merely a collection of recipes, it’s a piece of her family history and a record of her travels. It may just inspire you to embark on your own, both in the kitchen and beyond.
“Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East” is available at Amazon.com.