Levantine Legacy

Levantine Legacy

Culinary wunderkind Anissa Helou melds her Lebanese roots, steeped in the rich traditions of the Middle East, with a deep respect for cookbooks of all kinds.

Words by Joey Aji
Photos by Kristin Perers


Best known for her inspired chronicles of Middle Eastern cuisine, renowned cookbook author and culinary expert Anissa Helou is fresh off being crowned with the Foodics Icon Award by the Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants for her dedication to archiving the flavors of the region. 

She has prolifically preserved the culinary traditions of her Lebanese homeland for future generations with her distinct cookbooks; not just collections of recipes, but rather, ways to document a place and its culture. Through her writing, she paints vivid pictures of the people, places, and traditions that have shaped Lebanese and Syrian cuisine. “I used to consider them as a repository of serious culinary information,” she recalls, explaining how she initially thought of cookbooks as manuals. Although, now her perspective has zoomed out to a significantly wider view: she sees them as ways to talk about a culture, its people, its political environments, and its religions.

From a young age, Helou was exposed to the Lebanese region’s vibrancy and culinary makeup. As a former art consultant, her predisposition for curation is woven through over a dozen of her cookbooks and her writing process is meticulous; she collects her research, conversations, and recipes from professional chefs and street vendors to home cooks. “I contact as many people as possible, asking who they know that is an expert in a certain dish. If it is someone’s mother that makes a region’s best version of kibbeh, I want to speak with them. I just ask for a rough list of ingredients or special techniques. Then I take that back to the test kitchen where the work really starts,” she explains methodically.

Testing usually takes place in her kitchen in Southern Italy and if the flavors don’t stand out to her after a few tests, she scraps the recipe, and moves on to a new one. But it wasn’t until she started writing about food that she realized her true calling: “I was working as a freelance writer and was assigned to write a piece about Lebanese cuisine. As I researched and interviewed chefs, I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by the depth and complexity of the dishes. I realized that I wanted to document and share this knowledge with others.” Constantly inspired by the deep-rooted intricacies and variabilities of the regional cuisine, she has gone on to extensively document the differences between Syrian and Lebanese cuisine.

“People didn’t know about Syrian food for a long time. They were not familiar with it. Lebanese was what they knew, and what they wanted. There is a focus on freshness and vibrancy. It’s much lighter. Syrian food is heavier, more stews, more meats, more fat.”

The continuation of Helou’s substantial influence is detailed in her upcoming book, in which her mission is to delve deeper into documenting the culinary traditions of both Lebanon and Syria. The book, the title of which is yet to be determined, examines the characteristics  of Lebanon’s diverse culinary heritage. She plans on emphasizing the religious and cultural influences that shape the cuisine of the country in relation to its tumultuous political environment. This perspective, Anissa hopes, will provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of its place and relevance in the region - giving it a spotlight on a greater, global scale.