Culinary and Aromatic Journey Across the Islamic World

“My most vivid scent from Beirut was that of gardenias. Our neighbor’s garden was full of gardenia trees and when they flowered, the smell was so heady and divine that I would stay outside just to enjoy it,” recalls Lebanese-born Anissa Helou. As a journalist, chef and prolific cookbook author, she has traveled the world collecting recipes and learning how different nationalities prepare their food. Yet when I ask her for a favorite scent memory, it’s the perfume of Lebanese gardenias that she describes.

I was inspired to reach out to Helou after I spent a few weeks in a haze of coriander, rosewater and saffron, thanks to her magnum opus, Feast: Food of the Islamic World. Published this spring after many years of extensive research, it’s a fascinating compendium of recipes from countries united by their Islamic heritage. As I describe in my article for FT Magazine, A Cultural And Aromatic Journey Across the Islamic World, another common link among the diverse cuisines Helou describes is their attention to aromatics.

Helou sweeps us along on her journey. We follow her down the alleyways of the ancient city of Hyderabad to taste biryani, and then compare how this dish is prepared in Indonesia, Qatar or United Arab Emirates. We learn about the local occasions, festivals and celebrations for feasting. We meet the cooks. We hear their voices. Feast is filled with aromas, such as grilled scallion pancakes made by the indigenous Uyghur people in China’s western Xinjiang region, the sweet-and-sour fragrance of Iranian pomegranate soup and the voluptuous richness of Moroccan rice pudding. It is truly a feast for the senses, and with Helou’s precise instructions, the same heady experience can be replicated – at home. To continue reading, please click here.

Feast is over 500 pages and includes more than 300 recipes for soups, breads, vegetables, meat, fish, chicken, and desserts. One of my new favorites is Aish el-Saraya, a sumptuous (and very easy) Lebanese dessert, which is pictured in the first photo. It includes orange blossom water, a classical fragrance in the Levantine kitchen–and an essential ingredient in mine.

Photography is by Kristin Perers, whose images capture the scents and flavors perfectly.



  • Sandra: Is this available in english? Vegetarian friendly?
    That dessert sounds amazing, possible to share the recipe? July 23, 2018 at 7:40am Reply

    • Victoria: “Feast” is written in English.

      The dessert is addictive. The recipe for it is in the book, and I can’t improve on it. 🙂 July 23, 2018 at 8:54am Reply

      • Sandra: Perfect…does it have some vegetarian recipes or is it more meat based? July 23, 2018 at 9:57am Reply

        • Sandra: Ah, I can see the contents of the book online July 23, 2018 at 10:07am Reply

          • Victoria: I don’t know if you eat fish, but the book also has many very good fish recipes. I’ve been slowly working my way through that chapter. July 23, 2018 at 12:44pm Reply

        • Victoria: There are many vegetarian recipes too. July 23, 2018 at 10:12am Reply

  • Danaki: I was wondering why the link is Islamic. Might it have to do with the Muslim invasions (the Futuhat)? I guess I have to read the book to find out.
    Often happens to me when I find similarities between Arabic sweets I buy from Lebanon with the ones my work colleague brings to work whenever he’d been back to see his family in Kerala. In addition to Jalebi, this was our recent discovery of long lost (but non-identical) twins. Soan Papdi is similar in taste to Pashmak (Iran), Pismaniyeh (Turkey) and Ghazl-el-Banet (Lebanon). A couple of youtube videos and we discovered they’re made the same way too! July 23, 2018 at 10:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Because many of these countries were part of the big Islamic empires, and the influences persist. Not just in the cuisine, but other aspects of culture, including the language. Indonesian, for instance, contains many Arabic and Persian words, which came with the traders and pilgrims. The interesting aspect of looking at the food cultures from such a vantage point is that you discover many similarities. The book sometimes also shows the same recipe made in different places, and you can see how the basic idea evolved depending on the available ingredients. July 23, 2018 at 12:43pm Reply

      • Danaki: Fascinating. I’m always thinking about why whenever I notice that the sweets and pastries are so similar. The book is definitely going on top of my to-buy list. July 24, 2018 at 6:53am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s based on an impressive amount of research and travel, but the best part is that the recipes produce really delicious results. July 24, 2018 at 2:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: Here is another review of the book that goes deep into what makes “the Islamic cuisine.” It’s a fascinating read, and it makes similar points you do: July 26, 2018 at 3:34pm Reply

      • Danaki: Thank you Victoria. My favourite Indian recipe book is by Madhur Jeffrey – not the most comprehensive but easy to follow and simple. I notice more sweets recipe similar to home 🙂 July 29, 2018 at 8:26am Reply

        • Victoria: I also like Madhur Jaffrey’s books. She has done so much to popularize Indian cooking. July 30, 2018 at 9:25am Reply

  • phyllis: Many of these countries were invaded and conquered by Ottoman Islamic Turks. Perhaps only the culinary culture remains and seems incorrectly referred to as “Islamic” in this book title. July 23, 2018 at 2:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Well, Islam certainly remained in many of the places Helou visited, including parts of China. It didn’t always come as part of “invasion,” but also as a cultural and commercial exchange. Besides the Ottoman, there were also the Abbasid, Umayyad, Mughal and a few other empires who embraced Islam, and who left their own unique traces on the general culture and cuisine. July 23, 2018 at 3:01pm Reply

      • Annie: Did you hear of a new book about the Mughal empress Nur Jahan? I forgot the author’s name, but it might be of interest to you. July 24, 2018 at 10:58am Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, you’re right. 🙂 I read a review of it in the Economist and ordered a copy instantly. I’m waiting for it to arrive. July 24, 2018 at 2:47pm Reply

          • Sandra: What is the name of this book? July 26, 2018 at 7:10am Reply

            • Victoria: Empress by Ruby Lal. I received it yesterday and I already started reading it. It’s excellent. July 26, 2018 at 7:21am Reply

              • Sandra: Thank you! July 26, 2018 at 7:45am Reply

              • Sandra: Right now I am picking up 2 books for my summer reading. One is Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf, and Call me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi.
                You know I love to read, so I will add this book to my list! July 26, 2018 at 7:54am Reply

  • Mollza: This sounds like a wonderful and thoughtfully curated book showcasing the culinary diversity of the Muslim world. I’m definitely going to check it out! July 23, 2018 at 6:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: It is. I’m enjoying cooking from it and discovering new techniques and flavor combinations. July 24, 2018 at 2:02am Reply

  • Annie: This book sounds very interesting and I’m curious about the fish recipes you mentioned to Sandra.

    BTW, I’m enjoying your newsletter. It’s a beautiful treat to receive. July 24, 2018 at 10:54am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Annie!

      Helou has a delicious Lebanese recipe for fish in tahini sauce, which I already made twice. July 24, 2018 at 2:48pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: My Goodness, aren‘t we so very lucky! So many excellent cookery books focusing on Middle Eastern Cuisine, and here Muslim dishes. As I mentioned before, I am a great fan of Claudia Roden but also love working with modern recipes by say Malouf or Ottolenghi who both explore reinterpretations of classical dishes. Even though I cook nearly every day I just couldn’t ever cook all those dishes which I‘d love to try… July 24, 2018 at 11:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I feel the same way you do. With all of the books I have and recipes I collect, there is no way I can try them all. But I still like the process of reading and exploring. I also enjoy the work of the authors you mentioned. Helou’s Lebanese Cuisine has been my go-to book for years, and I also like her Levant and Sweet Middle East. The recipes are authentic and very well-explained, so even if you’re making a dish you’ve never tried before, you can understand what you’re supposed to obtain in the end. July 24, 2018 at 2:54pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: If you like exploring this genre may I recommend this very slender cookery book from 1958: “Fès vu par sa cuisine” by Mme. Guinaudeau (no christian name given!). It was first published in English in 1964 and was published with a foreword by Claudia Roden in 1994. It is called “Traditional Moroccan Cooking: Recipes from Fes” (Serif, London).
        I love the way Roden begins her foreword:
        “When years ago I travelled to research Morocco’s cooking, Madame Guinaudeau was mentioned to me by everybody I met and I talked to several people who boasted that they had given her recipes.”
        Guinaudeau writes with great sweep and panache: she mentioned 26 (!) spices which go into ras el hanout—some of which I think are rater dodgy!—and her various tagines are made for 10 people, and they cook for four hours… Great fun and very educative!! July 24, 2018 at 3:40pm Reply

        • Victoria: I love that little book! So it’s safe to say that we have similar tastes in cookbooks.

          By the way, Greg Malouf is coming out with a new book on sweets called Suqar. July 24, 2018 at 4:43pm Reply

  • Carla: Interesting review and enlightening comments here! July 25, 2018 at 11:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Carla! I also enjoyed reading the comments. July 26, 2018 at 3:23am Reply

  • Aurora: This must be a fantastic book and you make the author vividly present with your review, Victoria and I loved the juxtaposition of perfumes and spices and food.

    As a vegetarian with vegan tendancies, I am always interested in more ways to cook beans, and there must be delicious options in Feast. July 29, 2018 at 11:49am Reply

    • Victoria: There are more meat recipes on the whole, but vegetarian recipes in this book are excellent. July 30, 2018 at 9:28am Reply

  • Inma: Dear Victoria,

    Such a pleasure reading your article about this book.
    These days I am exploring some traditional recipes in my region – easy ones and slowly, slowly – the south of Spain.
    I am sure I´d find similarities with some of the Anissa´s recipes.
    She has done such an interesting and beautiful work.
    Thank you for introducing me to this book! August 1, 2018 at 4:27am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! I was watching a BBC program not long ago about the food of Valencia, and one of the local chefs was making a dish of rice, cherries, rabbit and tomatoes that really made me of think of Syrian or Persian cuisines. I must try it one of these days. August 3, 2018 at 3:09am Reply

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