Mediterranean Street Food

by Anissa Helou

Published by HarperCollins

277 pages, 2002


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Word on the Street

Reviewed by Adrian Marks

 

Anissa Helou, the esteemed author of Café Morocco and Lebanese Cuisine begins her latest book, Mediterranean Street Food with a story from her childhood that explains her fascination with food made, sold and consumed on the street.

When I was a child in Beirut's belle époque, during the late 1950s and early '60s, when Lebanon was the Switzerland of the Middle East, my mother never allowed me to eat on the street. ... I walked past the vendors longingly watching their carts and the people gathered around them, wishing I could join in. Every time I would repeat, "Why does everybody in Lebanon eat on the street but not us?" And my uncles would reply, "Girls from good families don't, but you can buy whatever you want and take it back home to eat there." Sadly, they never understood that it was not the same.

As the author tells us in the balance of the introduction and in many of the engaging preambles to her recipes, she has spent a lot of time in her adulthood remedying this bit of childhood deprivation, sampling street food -- and eating it on the spot -- wherever her travels have take her. In Mediterranean Street Food, she brings it all full circle, recreating hundreds of street-wise recipes for the home kitchen, giving us all a chance to share in her childhood wish.

The "Mediterranean" in the title is meant quite literally: Mediterranean Street Food includes recipes from parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: from Spain, France and Italy to Turkey and Morocco and everyplace in between.

Because Helou is a foody and a traveler, the information she imparts is as good as the recipes she includes, providing the armchair (or future) traveler with much valuable information along with the colors and smells of the street. For instance, prefacing a recipe for Harissa (Tunisian Hot Chili Paste), Helou tells us that "If you order a sandwich in Tunisia, the vendor will automatically spread the bread with harissa the way Westerners spread theirs with butter, mayonnaise, or mustard." Introducing us to beyssara -- Fava Bean Soup -- Helou says:

This soup is found both in Morocco and in Egypt, but it is in the former country that it is served on the street. In Marrakesh, beyssara is usually cooked in large, round earthenware jars that are balanced over charcoal fires in a tilted position, to make ladling out the soup easier. Even when it is cooked in aluminum pans, the vendors will tilt the pan over the charcoal fire.

The book is broken into eight chapters that demonstrate that Mediterranean Street Food is not just about snack foods: Soups; Snacks, Salads, and Dips; Pizzas, Breads, and Savory Pastries; Sandwiches; Barbecues; One-Pot Meals; Sweets and Desserts; and Drinks. The book is illustrated by the author's own dynamic photos of street food in situ: but don't look for these to help you in your preparation. The photos add to the flavor of the book and aren't really intended to help you with your own recreations.

Despite the fact that the book includes no color photographs, Mediterranean Street Food is alive with the colors, scents and flavors of the Mediterranean. Helou has given us a passport and an invitation. Her easy-to-follow recipes are our tour guides. It's a wonderful trip. | January 2003

 

Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.