Anissa Helou on feminism, belonging and why ‘Middle Eastern cuisine’ doesn’t exist

Giulia Sgarbi - 04/01/2023

On her announcement as winner of the Foodics Icon Award for Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, the woman who brought the richness and nuances of Levantine cuisines into the international spotlight looks back on her career, reflects on a changing world and reveals why she won’t be stopping any time soon

A snapshot of Anissa Helou’s childhood home in Beirut would see a family of five gathered around a table, ready to tuck into the colourful spread of homemade delicacies prepared by her mother: aromatic kibbeh, fresh fattoush and fragrant tabbouleh. Food was always central to family life in the Helou household – her father owned lands in his home country of Syria, while her mother had vast knowledge of Lebanon’s recipes and culinary traditions – but for the first 40 years of her life, Anissa chased a more “intellectual” career in the art world as a consultant and collector.

“Until I wrote my first book, I looked at gastronomy only as a passion and a hedonistic pursuit. But food has a huge place in the life of everybody,” she says. “When you sit with a family at the table, you find out about their traditions and customs – it’s like a window into the culture of a country. If you look at food from a different perspective, there’s a lot more to it than just substance. Food is culture.”

It was in the late 1980s that Helou realised that food wasn’t getting the credit it deserved in travel and culture writing. She remembers that in a guide to Turkey she found at the British Library in London, where she had moved when she was 21, she couldn’t locate a single entry about Turkish coffee, which she knew was a crucial element of the national culture and hospitality. As a result, she set out to create a different kind of cookbook that didn’t only detail recipes, but also gave glimpses into the history and culture that had birthed those dishes.
Anissa Helou is awarded the Foodics Icon Award as part of Middle East & North Africa's 50 Best Restaurants 2023

That first book – called Lebanese Cuisine and published in 1994 – has become a cornerstone of Middle Eastern gastronomic literature. Inspired primarily by the recipes that Helou’s mother recounted to her over the course of a year in London, it seamlessly weaves memories and cultural traditions with dishes that countless people have since reproduced in their own kitchens. It is more than a cookbook: it became a tool of preservation of the ancestral culinary knowledge that the country, ravaged by a 15-year-long civil war and abandoned by a younger generation forced to look for opportunities elsewhere, was slowly losing.

In the years following, when Helou travelled to the US to promote her books and teach in cooking schools across the country, she met many second-generation Arab-Americans who no longer spoke their parents’ language, but who had kept their identity through their food. They still meticulously followed the recipes their parents had brought with them when they emigrated, making her realise that food is part of a person’s sense of identity and reinforcing her belief that there was value in preserving those traditions.

“For me, preservation is about leaving food knowledge to future generations and recording it so that it’s not lost,” she says. “For instance, because of the war in Syria a lot of people have been displaced, and the situation is very difficult in Lebanon with the current economic crisis. There are so many traditions I remember from when I was a child that you simply don’t see any more. So my work is about keeping at least a record of those traditions and dishes, so that when they’re really lost, at least they’re not lost on record.”
Helou making a baked kibbeh (images: Kristin Perers)

A cultural revolution

What kept Helou away from food when choosing a career was the feeling that it was, as she puts it, a “domesticated” activity. Having seen her mother seemingly tied to the stove every day for most of her life and having become enamoured of the teachings of French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, she longed for a different kind of life and rebelled against the expectation that good Lebanese girls should find a husband, create a family and cook for them.

Working in the art world in 1970s and 1980s, she recalls struggling as a woman in a male-dominated industry – much like many young cooks in top kitchens still do today. She remembers being taken less seriously as a collector than her male counterparts, with dealers often more interested in dating her than selling her their pieces.

“Restaurant kitchens are still a man’s world,” she says. “A woman’s talent is often harder to recognise than a man’s. Fortunately things have changed a lot, but they need to change even more. These days there are wonderful women, like Asma Khan in the UK and Manon Fleury in France, who are supporting other women in the industry and helping them stand up to their male employers. So there is more work to do, but it’s happening.”

As time went by, Helou began to see a change in food culture. “My father would have never cooked anything, not even eggs for his breakfast. But today, men who like food are totally happy to cook; the foodie culture has taken away some of that gender division. When I was a young girl, I thought cooking was a waste of time, but today I would encourage young women to sit with their mothers and grandmothers and learn their recipes before they disappear.”
One of Helou's cookbooks entitled Feast: Food of the Islamic World, published in 2018

Citizen of the foodie world

Since her first foray into the literary world in 1994, Helou has written nine further books about the cuisines of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, ranging in topic from savoury baking to modern mezze, from offal to street food and, more recently, the ancestral food cultures of the Islamic world including countries such as Saudi Arabia. While she has travelled extensively across the region as part of her research, London is now the closest city she has to a home, but the chef and writer is also candid about her feeling of belonging.

“I’m an orphan of two countries,” she says. “Syria and Lebanon as I knew them no longer exist; it’s like losing the place that you grew up in. It’s heart-breaking to see the damage that has been done to both countries. As an exile or an immigrant, I don’t belong anywhere, but I don’t really want to belong, because there is real freedom in that. I also feel at home everywhere because I travel a lot and I make friends everywhere. So that’s the most important thing for me: to have the feeling of an insider, rather than that of someone who belongs.”

Helou’s insider’s knowledge shines through in all her writings, which are no longer limited to print: she’s also a regular contributor to publications such as the Los Angeles Times and Bon Appetit in the US, as well as The Independent and The Guardian in the UK. Her books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, have been translated into various languages and have won virtually every award available, from the James Beard Foundation’s International Cookbook Award to prestigious honours at the Gourmand Book Awards. While she worked tirelessly, a revolution was in progress.

“When I started writing about Middle Eastern food 30 years ago, nobody knew about freekeh, rose water or orange blossom water,” she says. When she moved to London, Helou tried to get Harvey Nichols, a famous department store, to stock freekeh in their food hall: she was simply laughed at. “At that time, they said that no one would buy it. But now, Middle Eastern food is very fashionable: it has entered the mainstream. If you Google za’atar, you will find it in so many recipes, and that is wonderful.”

The popularisation of the cuisines of the Middle Eastern and North African region, however, also had the effect of diluting them somewhat. Helou’s pet peeve is when people use “hummus” to indicate not just the traditional chickpea and sesame dip but any dip, be it made from olives or artichokes or anything else, or when they talk about meze without realising that the meze experience in Turkey is totally different from that in Lebanon.

“You simply can’t talk about ‘Middle Eastern cuisine’ because it doesn’t exist,” she insists. “After all, you don’t talk about ‘European cuisine’. Most people think about just a few famous dishes, when actually there is a huge range. I would like people to have more knowledge about how rich and varied the cuisines of the different countries in the region are, but for that to happen you need more exposure via books, restaurants, articles and events.”
Helou's first cookbook, Lebanese Cuisine, has become a standout guide to Middle Eastern gastronomy

An eye on the future

Turning 71 years old in February 2023, Helou still holds much the same feminist stance that she developed as a young woman. “I believe in women being independent – financial independence, independence of thought and, indeed, all-round independence is very important, because that’s how you shape your life and how you can try to achieve happiness. I would advise any young woman to stand her ground, to not be intimidated, to believe in herself and to pursue whatever she wants to pursue, regardless of any obstacles.”

This year, while writing a new book unearthing the regional cuisines of Lebanon, Helou is also hoping to begin the building works for her new cooking school in Trapani, on Italy’s southern island of Sicily, where she recently bought a piece of land. “Right now it’s a ruin, but I’m hoping to restore it and turn it into a kitchen where I will teach about Lebanese, Moroccan and Persian food, and invite local Sicilian cooks to give lessons. It will be a meeting place to learn more about the food of the island and different Mediterranean cuisines.”

Still a fervent believer that food is the ultimate unifier, Helou plans to continue to use her favourite weapon to create unity and community for as long as she can. “Whether it’s a taxi driver, a merchant or a lady at the souk who is carrying something interesting, food is a great conversation starter,” she says. “It allows you to open up, to get to know people and to enter a different world.”

Reflecting on her career to date, the winner of the Foodics Icon Award 2023 displays the signature optimism that has helped her navigate an unconventional, surprising and fulfilling life. “I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far and with how my books have been received. Even though they may not be bestsellers, they’re respected and they’re being used, so they will last long after I’m gone,” she says. “I love that today a lot more people are interested in food preservation and exploring regional rather than national cuisines. But I also think I can still do more.”

Find out more about Anissa Helou in the video:

The upcoming edition of Middle East & North Africa's 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be announced on Monday, 30th January 2023 in Abu Dhabi. To be the first to hear about the latest news and announcements, browse the website, follow us on Instagram, find us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel.