Cooking recipes exactly as they are written has been a surprising challenge. Every step of the way, I want to swap ingredients around. But if I’m not relying on my own wit and judgement, then any errors in a cookbook are made very clear. Two books that I’ve made a few recipes from are Everyday Lebanese Cooking by Mona Hamadeh, and Levant by Anissa Helou. Given that they are both filled with recipes exclusively from the Middle East, a review of both is definitely in order.
Everyday Lebanese Cooking is full of simple and traditional recipes, honed by the author’s experience of cooking and eating the food from childhood. Most recipes are accompanied by a large picture and they’re styled as much as they might be at home. There is no need for special equipment, and many of the recipes require little in the way of specialist ingredients to prepare much of the food: the emphasis is kept on the everyday nature of the food.
From what I’ve eaten, the recipes in the book do work produce delicious food, however, there is little more to Everyday Lebanese Cooking than a collection of recipes. If you like cookbooks full of stories of far flung cultures and personal anecdotes, you won’t find all that many, which does make the book feel a little characterless. As an introduction to the cuisine of Lebanon though, it’s hard to fault.
Levant by Anissa Helou is almost the polar opposite. Every recipe comes complete with up to a page of stories or anecdotes from the author’s life growing up in Beirut and the mountains of Syria or her travels in Turkey, Jordan and Iran. The book is very evocative of the places and people and is enjoyable to read and immerse yourself in the smells of the souks and bakeries. The book also goes much deeper into the cooking of the region, from homely recipes for traditional preserves and pickles to elaborate sweet-treats scented with cardamom and saffron, though you might be hard pressed to find ingredients like dehydrated yoghurt balls though outside of very specialist shops (all my usual sources failed me on that one). The usability of the book for cooking has been sacrificed somewhat for the sake of the personal nature of the book, but the author herself states that it was intended as an academic collection of dishes. Named as one of the top 20 food books of 2013 by The Observer though, it is more of a collection of stories than a recipe book and ought to be treated as such.