Mediterranean Street Food: Stories, Soups, Snacks, Sandwiches, Barbecues, Sweets, and More from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East
by Anissa Helou
Publisher: William Morrow, Country: US
ISBN: 139780060891510, Year: 2006
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Mediterranean Street Food is a celebration of both the food and the culture of the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Street food has been part of the way of life in this region for centuries and the history of all these countries, from Spain and Morocco in the west to Turkey and Lebanon in the east, is written in the food the people eat. Anissa Helou brings her natural curiosity and her innate cultural understanding to this collection of recipes gleaned from the street vendors themselves. Covering a broad range, this book is a very good introduction to both the similarities and subtle differences between the cuisines of the Mediterranean with an appealing range of recipes easily achievable at home.

Full review

The Mediterranean Sea is enormous. It covers 2,500,00 km² (965,000 sq. miles) with around 46,000 km (29,000 miles) of coastline. Some 20 countries have a Mediterranean coast from Spain and Morocco at one end to Lebanon and Syria at the other. After years of trading back and forth – to say nothing of the odd conquest and invasion – the cuisines of the areas bordering the Mediterranean have much in common. It is, however, the subtle differences that distinguish one from the other which are so very important to the cultural identities of the people of this region and make the food of this area so fascinating. One man’s shawarma is not another man’s kebab. Then there’s the variety of breads: there seem to be endless varieties of flat breads alone (and if you are in Turkey you will be eating simit even if they look for all the world the same as Greek koulouria). After you finish with the breads you could write another book on pastry, from waqa, filo and yufka to the various other forms of pastry used for bureks or böreks or boreka.

Writing a book about Mediterranean food, albeit one which concentrates only on one particular aspect, is therefore not to be undertaken lightly. Anissa Helou, however, is well qualified for the task. Daughter of a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother, she grew up in Beirut, lived for the best part of ten years in Kuwait, speaks fluent English, French and Arabic and, perhaps most importantly, she is curious and educates herself through on the spot research. By training an art historian, and in a previous life an owner of an antique shop and a collector, she is also the author of several other recipe books Modern Mezze, Lebanese Cuisine, Café Morocco, and The Fifth Quarter, contributes to various magazines, appears on British TV and radio, teaches and writes about food at www.anissas.com.

Mediterranean Street Food is an impressive attempt to capture not just the variety but also the atmosphere and traditions of eating on the street. Chapters cover soups; snacks (including salads and dips); pizzas, bread and savoury pastries; sandwiches; barbecues; one-pot meals; sweets and desserts; and drinks and include recipes from the Balkans, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey. The emphasis is rather more on the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, in part because this is the area with which Ms Helou is most familiar and in part because, as she explains in her introduction, the European countries to the west, France, Spain and Italy, have long traditions of restaurants, comedores and trattorie which have supplanted street food to a large extent. Her commentary is very informative and she manages to strike just the right balance between useful information, historical and cultural background and personal anecdote which makes this book a good general reference as well as a useful cookbook.

As you might expect from food prepared by itinerant vendors using rudimentary equipment, the recipes are simple and straightforward and perhaps surprisingly call for very few ingredients that are still hard to find these days either in the supermarket, from your local specialty shop or via mail order. This just serves to lend weight to my contention that surely it is the döner kebab which should be held up as the symbol of globalisation rather than the not so tasty Big Mac! With no fancy marketing strategies or corporate infrastructure the döner kebab and the felafel have taken on the world, symbols of fast food with a heritage rather than just a commercial imperative. But I digress.

Most of the recipes come straight from the street – from interviews with vendors and from watching them cooking. I can’t personally vouch for the authenticity of Ms Helou’s recipes other than to say that her Stuffed Peppers are almost identical to the dolma my Turkish friend prepares, right down to standing wedges of potato between them so that the peppers remain upright, despite the fact that her recipe comes from Crete. Everything I have made following her directions has been delicious.

What makes this book particularly appealing are the photographs, all taken by Anissa Helou on her travels. My version, the American paperback, has only black and white photos which is a shame because they would be quite spectacular in colour. Perhaps my favourite is a street scene in Cairo with tables set and people waiting patiently for the muezzin to announce sunset so that they can break their fast. Her photos of Jame’el Fna in Marrakesh took me straight back there although I have to admit that my experiences of eating street food in Morocco are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

This is a terrific book for anyone interested in the food of this region but beware because it is likely to simultaneously induce both hunger and itchy feet.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 5. Highly recommended
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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2 Comments

  1. Posted 13 Mar 2012 at 04:22 | Permalink

    not sure when you posted this review but i have just come across it. thank you so much and v pleased to know you enjoy the book. i loved researching and writing it.

  2. Posted 29 Mar 2012 at 06:55 | Permalink

    Words cannot convey the authenticity of this compilation nor how truly comprehensive it is!! I refer to this book often and am always surprised when the name and recipe of a local delicacy, unknown to me, is found after just a little poking around!! The photographs are evocative and SO add to the enjoyment of the book. Her book entitled “Savory Baking From the Mediterranean” is also stellar. Anissa Helou is brilliant!!!

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