“I can’t remember exactly when it was that I decided to wear a uniform,” says cookbook author Anissa Helou, rubbing a corner of her gauzy white shirt between thumb and forefinger, “but it was around the time my hair started to turn grey.” Anissa’s wardrobe is strictly monochrome which certainly complements her salt-and-pepper bob of curls; her outfits - her uniform - are usually black trousers or dark jeans and, unfailingly, a white shirt that finishes just below the hip. She looks unchanged since I last saw her, which we agree might be pushing ten years ago. Only a pair of coral drop earrings and some velvet slippers are suggestive of her changed circumstances; little sartorial tributes to Italy, where she moved a few years ago.
The consistency of Anissa’s style is at odds with other aspects of her. She is both nomad and polymath; describing her simply as a cookbook author feels wrong – it is true, but just one of her many guises, from one-time Middle East expert at Sotheby’s to a private art consultant, the owner of a Parisian antique shop, a cook, a culinary tour guide and, yes, a writer. She is currently writing her eleventh book, about the regional cuisines of Lebanon, her country of origin.
It is to Beirut that she is headed tomorrow, where her 91-year-old mother still lives, although she hops between here, there and Sicily, her newest home, where she has converted an apartment in Trapani, on the island’s northwestern coast. “I’ve been here for six weeks now and it’s too long. I’m itching to be somewhere else,” Anissa says. As she no longer has a home in London, we meet at her friend’s otherwise empty house near Gloucester Road: handsome, detached and with Persian rugs, security grilles on the windows and, despite its size, a small kitchen which doesn’t get used much, even when Anissa is staying.
“I only cook when I’m working or entertaining,” she says. Luckily for me, today is both. She is making koussa bil-zeyt (“zucchini in olive oil”), miniature courgettes poached in a thick tomato sauce with onions and garlic, lots of dried mint and the eponymous oil. As she cooks (how brave, I think, to nurse a pan of sputtering tomato sauce in that beautiful white shirt) we talk and I am reminded of how much Anissa is herself, unapologetically so, and how she delights in subverting expectations. She is the cookery expert who hardly cooks, the art specialist who sold her entire collection, the collector who, bafflingly, had a niche in fishing tackle, and is unfailingly glamorous, but only for herself. The uniform works well for all her travel – “I just take hand luggage, and if someone wants me to dress up for an evening, that’s their problem”; and in answer to a question about partners or lovers, simply, “No, that’s finished, I’m retired.”
The room begins to fill with the scent of tomato sauce, a tin of good quality polpa that she has seasoned with salt and which now thickens on the hob before it is united with everything else. From another pan, the smell of sautéing red onions, then garlic, rises. Anissa adds the courgettes and heats the lot for a couple of minutes until everything glistens with oil. The format of bil-zeyt dishes, she says, is ubiquitously Lebanese, “but the seasonings might vary depending on where you are. Usually they are quite plain and just depend on a few good ingredients and gentle cooking.”
Comparing and contrasting regional and also national cooking traditions is second nature to Anissa, who, though raised in Beirut, is only half Lebanese; her father, a civil engineer, was Syrian. Her parents met through church – they belong to a sizeable Christian minority in the Levant – and Anissa grew up visiting Mashta al-Helou, her paternal family home over the border, during holidays.
“There is a noticeable difference between the two cuisines,” Anissa tells me. “The dishes are more or less shared but treated differently. So, in Syria, you find more sweet and savoury, using sharply sweet fruit flavours, like pomegranate syrup. As kids we would make grape ‘leather’ on visits to Syria, mashing the fruit in tubs for juice which we’d boil then roll out thin and flat to make sweet strips.”
Syrian holidays offered a counterpoint to her urban life in Beirut, most noticeable in the things they ate and how they were made. “My aunt had an old stone house in the middle of nowhere – there were no shops, not even a road, and so everything came from the land. There were lots of things we didn’t have in Lebanon, partly because we were city kids. My aunt made bread in the pit oven. We’d eat it with dried fruit and homemade fig jam. In September we’d pick pomegranates, grapes, jujube (a fruit that looks like an olive but tastes like something between an apple and a date). She had chickens which she killed herself. Cows for milk and butter that she churned, and it was in this garden bordering on a smallholding that family members would be buried too.” To the ears of a city dweller, these scenes sound eccentric in their observance of a natural order. “For us, it was amazing,” she says.
It is in large part a desire to return to the lifestyle of the Levant that took her to Sicily. Anissa describes their common ground, such as the seasonality and produce – the backbone of olives and lemons, mineral vegetables, salty cheese, mountain herbs and vibrant fruits that thrive in hot, harsh, seemingly unlikely conditions. The people, too, have similar warmth, a Mediterranean hospitality around which she feels at ease. “It’s like going home without any of the problems,” Anissa says. “Lebanon is pretty lawless – it is now a failed state. People carry on living there but I was in the UK for 50 years, I can’t now go back to live in a country where I can’t even have a bank account. Sicily has its own problems – the mafia, a lot of bureaucracy – but it functions.”
Anissa always knew she would leave Lebanon, where she says a conventional life of marriage and children was expected for her. “I started reading the French existentialists at 16 and decided I wanted an intellectual life in Paris!” she laughs. Her passport to Europe was a Dutch man she met in Beirut, although less directly than you might imagine: she needed to convince her parents to let her leave. Casually, as she adds a shower of dried mint to the courgettes, she tells the story: “We started an affair, although I had a Lebanese boyfriend at the time. When I told him I wanted to leave, he kidnapped me at gunpoint and started organising our wedding. He lunged at me, but instead of hitting me, he fell and hurt his leg. I saw my chance to escape. I took him to the hospital and said to my parents that they’d have to let me go or he’d kill me.” It worked, and in September 1973, she moved to London with her Dutch boyfriend.
Time passed and Anissa’s rich and diverse career took place. There were a few lovers. There were lots of Victorian Regency paintings, Arts & Crafts furniture and fishing paraphernalia. She didn’t cook, although, having grown up in Lebanon with a family of wonderful cooks, she had an exacting palate. “I’d grown up watching my mother and grandmother in the kitchen, but I didn’t cook when I was young, I didn’t want to. I told the Dutch guy not to expect me to cook, or in fact to do anything that was expected of women.” But Anissa goes on to explain that, during phases of the Lebanese Civil War, she’d been unable to get in touch with her mother and, as London was “a culinary desert”, she cooked a Lebanese dinner from memory, “Kibbeh, hummus, tabbouleh… I’d have to go here, there and everywhere to get the ingredients I needed and relied heavily on the Athenian Grocery, a Greek shop on Moscow Road.”
Nowadays, of course, it’s easier to source good Mediterranean produce in London. Long gone are the days when people shopped at pharmacies for olive oil. Anissa bought today’s courgettes from the farmer’s market on nearby Bute Street and the Lebanese flatbread, with which we are to mop up the minty tomato sauce, from Green Valley, just off Edgware Road. We sit down to eat; the courgettes are tender, almost honeyed in their sweetness, and the bread is thin, light, the ideal vessel. I make appreciative sounds; “they are good,” she agrees – simply stating a fact.
Courgettes in Tomato Sauce
The best courgette for making this recipe would be those that are light green in colour. Choose those that are rather small and of the same size so that you can cut them in half lengthwise for a beautiful presentation.
600g small courgettes, cut in half lengthwise
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, halved lengthwise and cut into thin strips
3 cloves of garlic, cut into thin strips
600g ripe tomatoes, peeled and cut into small pieces, or the equivalent in a can
1 tablespoon dried mint powder, or fresh mint, finely chopped
Sea salt to taste
- Cut off the courgette stems and the little brown skin at the bottom of the courgette. Rinse under cold water and cut in half lengthwise.
- Put the olive oil and onion in a saucepan and set over medium heat. Saute until the onions are golden then add the garlic.
- Saute for another minute or two before adding the courgette.
- Flip the courgette for a few minutes then add the tomatoes and salt to taste.
- Cover the pan and let boil for 15 minutes, or until the courgette is almost cooked.
- Raise the lid of the pan and add the mint. Cook for another 5 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and become rather thick. Taste to see if you need to add salt.
- Serve warm or completely cooled.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Dalia Khamissy.