Anissa Helou On Beirut And The Beauty Of Lebanese Cuisine

10 September 2020
Anissa Helou, Beirut, Lebanon, Food, Cooking
Helou will be auctioning her time in aid of Beirut

This weekend, Lebanese-Syrian author and chef Anissa Helou will be auctioning off her time to the highest bidder, in aid of the Beirut relief fund. As part of #AskChefsAnything, Helou and close to 100 other chefs from all over the world will be donating their time to help Lebanon in the wake of the blast on August 4.

Ahead of the auction we sat down with the author of Feast: Food of the Islamic World to talk about Lebanon, where she grew up and the beauty of the nation's cooking.

What does being involved in an initiative like this for Beirut mean for you personally?

I was born in Beirut and lived there until I was 21, so it is my city, basically. I go there, very regularly, because my mother still lives in Lebanon and I've got lots of friends there, and I love Lebanese food. I was just as shocked as everybody else, I mean obviously not affected, because I don't live there, but lots of my friends have been affected. And it's such an unimaginable catastrophe that I would do anything I can to help.

Why is Beirut so special to people in the Middle East?

I mean, you know, I don't have the rosy tinted view of Beirut or even Lebanon that many of my friends have but I recognize that it’s an exceptional place, or actually it’s more that it’s an exceptional people than an exceptional country, as it were. The country is very beautiful but it’s been ruined by the politicians, the war, greed, also. And it's understandable by so many people like it not only for, you know, the climate, the landscape of food but also the people the hospitality the friendliness the openness that you find them in Lebanon that is kind of different from almost anywhere else. I mean the hospitality is the same everywhere but there is, there is the mixture of east and west and Lebanon is fairly exceptional.

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What do you think defines Lebanese cuisine?

There is a kind of sophistication and elegance, or refinement. A freshness and vibrancy. That is Lebanese more than Syrian or Turkish. It's the use of lemon juice, olive oil, the simplicity more, you know? Lebanese food is simple and vibrant, and we have a lot of salads, which actually you don't have that much in Turkey. I mean you can go for days in Turkey without eating lots of different salads.

Thinking about comfort food and, is there something you’ve turned to lately which makes you happy?

Arabic ice cream. I’m kind of obsessed with making Arabic ice cream, you know thickened with salep and mastic and flavoured with rose water and other things. That is my ultimate comfort food and my obsession since the lockdown. The thickening agent gives the ice cream a different texture from let's say thickening the milk to, you know, make a custard. So you have this kind of chewy, stretchy texture that makes the pleasure of the ice cream last longer because it's thicker and more dense.

What do you expect from the Ask Chefs Anything interview? 

I think it depends. I have a small following on Instagram and let's say one of those people who follow me on Instagram win. They will probably ask me questions about, how to make kibbeh or they would want to understand more about food culture. And if they want to cook along I'm quite happy to do it, but half an hour, is quite short.

What advice do you think people should be taking from professional chefs?

I think one of the, one of the most important thing that that differentiates chef home cooks is the organisational approach. Unless they're very experienced and very organised, home cooks kind of cook by instinct. They might not chop on a board, for instance, but chop you know, the way their grandmother  showed them. You see a lot of home cooks chopping an onion by holding the onion in one hand and the knife in another chopping over the pot.

And of the other chefs on the list, who would you like to speak to?

I would love to like talk to one of the women chef, because I'm kind of interested in women in the kitchen. I mean professional women in the kitchen, so Apollonia Poilane. I’d talk about sourdough because I've been kind of bucking the trend and making ice cream instead of baking.