Anissa Helou - Issue 116 - Magazine | Monocle

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“When I left Beirut in 1973 I didn’t cook at all. My mother was a marvellous cook, as was my grandmother, and my father was a gourmet so we always ate well. Nobody spoke about organic [food] then but everything came from the farmers. The fishermen came to the door to sell us what they’d caught; the milkman had cows and brought milk over in pails.

But I never cooked. Worse, I didn’t want to cook because I was supposedly liberated and didn’t want to be domesticated. I was reading Simone de Beauvoir and other feminists. What I didn’t realise is that I knew how to cook.

I started after an evening during which a glamorous young lady cooked for my boyfriend and I saw how impressed he was, which is actually not very feminist of me [laughing]. In London I decided to throw a Lebanese dinner party at the height of the civil war: with no way to call my mother back in Lebanon and no cookbook. I was thinking, ‘I’ll just have to cook from memory and remember what she did to make kibbeh, hummus, tabbouleh...’ Funnily enough, I did. It was a great success and I decided I would only cook at dinner parties.

When I came to London I didn’t know what I wanted to do, apart from be either Marie Curie or De Beauvoir. I went to the Inchbald School of Design but didn’t like the idea of becoming an interior designer and being at the beck and call of clients. Even then, I was particular. Someone suggested I do the Sotheby’s Works of Art course so I applied and was fortunate enough to be accepted. I loved my 20 or so years in the art world.

I started writing about food in 1992, just as cookbooks were becoming cool. I didn’t have much respect for them. It wasn’t a literary genre as far as I was concerned; they were just manuals to me. When I decided to write Lebanese Cuisine, I had two purposes: to record my mother’s recipes and to produce a volume for the young people displaced by the war. Once I did it, I understood that food was culture and that you could work seriously recording recipes, researching food, social context and all that.

So I carried on. I think a cookbook-writer records history and culture. That’s my mission. My latest cookbook, Feast: Food of the Islamic World, is a heavy tome with more than 300 recipes. Apart from the Middle East, I went to Indonesia, Zanzibar, Senegal, Kashgar in China and so on. I’m not a Muslim but following September 11, the Arab Spring and the rise of Isis, I felt that a positive way to portray Islam and Muslims was through food – that was the idea behind the book.

For my last meal here I would empty the restaurant – because I hate other people – and tell them to reserve it for me because I’m going to die. I’d then probably invite some friends who I really like. If my mother was still alive I’d bring her over and get her to cook something. That plus raw prawns, fried prawns, different kinds of pasta – and maybe I’d fly in some caviar and foie gras. I have expensive taste but I love perfect food and perfect food for me does not mean fussy food.

I remember one particular meal in Alexandria in Egypt. It was on the beach in a shack a bit like this. It was nothing special, just this fisherman bringing us amazingly fresh fried and grilled fish. Simple food is my idea of heaven.”

Half Syrian and half Lebanese, writer Anissa Helou has become a favourite on the Arab-Mediterranean food scene, penning nine cookbooks on everything from Moroccan street food to offal and Lebanese home cooking. Born in Beirut in 1952, she moved to London at 21 to seek out a different life. She found it working as an art adviser for Sotheby’s and the Kuwaiti royal family, before turning her talented hand to food-writing. Her first cookbook, Lebanese Cuisine, was published in 1994 and was shortlisted for the André Simon award. She now splits her time between London and Trapani, Sicily, where she owns a flat and some farmland.

Located in a nature reserve, La Pineta was set up in 1974 by Angelo Rizzuto, who today runs the restaurant with his son Giuseppe. It specialises in Sicilian seafood dishes and is known for its lobster pasta, which is ceremoniously served in a lobster shell. Helou was first taken here by a friend who helped her find the plot of land she now cultivates. She has been coming back to enjoy the Italian fare, served to a soundtrack of crashing waves, ever since.
Via Punta Cantone, 91022 Marinella di Selinunte, Castelvetrano

To eat
Raw gamberro rosso (red prawns) in lemon juice and olive oil, and fritto misto.

Main course:
Pasta with sardines and wild fennel, raisins, pine nuts and breadcrumbs; pasta with lobster; and pasta with sea urchins.

To drink:
Grillo Parlante by Fondo Antico.

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