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Anissa Helou Cookbook Packs Vast Islamic World Into 1 Cookbook


This evening marks the start of Ramadan, the holy month in which observant Muslims don't eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. Many Muslims prepare for each day's fast with a Sahur, a predawn meal meant to stick to the ribs and ward off hunger until nighttime. Anissa Helou is the author of the cookbook "Feast: Food Of The Islamic World." It's an impressive collection of recipes from Nigeria, Indonesia, China and, of course, the Middle East.

How did you go about selecting which recipes to include in this book?

ANISSA HELOU: I didn't want to be boring or repetitive, so I had to kind of make a choice between leaving out some very common recipes that you find in lots of books. And then I chose classic recipes, recipes that were very typical of the countries that I was including, and then personal favorites.

SHAHANI: Something that struck me is that food is often regional, not religious, in terms of how it's developed.

HELOU: It's true.

SHAHANI: So is there something about food from the Islamic world, the recipes you've picked, that you think are specific to the religion Islam?

HELOU: Yeah. So let's take Muslim China, you know, the western part of China - Uighur country. They use lamb, which they don't use in the rest of China, or very little. And their noodles are made from wheat. And they have bread. So that region has this food because of its religion and because of its proximity to Turkey.

SHAHANI: The reason I called Anissa Helou is because of a dish I've been meaning to make for a long time. In her book, she has two versions - one from Egypt, one from Syria - a nutritious and simple meal made from beans that's perfect for Ramadan or for any time, really - ful medames, or simply ful.

HELOU: Ful is a very filling dish. So if you ate ful at whatever hour, you could stay without eating anything or feeling very hungry for at least five, six hours.

SHAHANI: Helou join me in my kitchen here in D.C. via video chat to teach me how to make both the Egyptian and the Syrian recipes.

HELOU: Ful actually is the Arabic word for fava beans, dried fava beans. It depends on who prepares it, but let's say the Egyptian version is broad beans, dried broad beans, that are cooked for a very long time, like overnight, until they become pretty mushy. And they're dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic and then garnished. You can have the garnish that you want, but usually tomatoes, onion, parsley, cumin. So this is the Egyptian version and the typical Egyptian breakfast.

SHAHANI: I see. Well, I have some good news and bad news to report to you at the beginning of our ful cooking session. And I feel like a fool - (laughter) F-O-O-L - I don't have any fava bean option.


SHAHANI: Yeah, I waited too long to go grocery shopping and couldn't find fava beans. So I did what everyone does - I Googled for substitutes and ended up with lima and kidney beans. And this gave Helou an idea.

HELOU: What about doing the lima beans the Egyptian way and the kidney beans the Syrian way?


HELOU: And that would work quite well.

SHAHANI: Her instructions are easy. Mush up your beans, mixing in lemon, oil, salt and cumin. Then add the garnish. Through the magic of radio, we'll fast-forward to the important part.

HELOU: Now you can taste and see if the seasoning is right.

SHAHANI: Taste and see. Wow, it's flavorful.

HELOU: It should be.

SHAHANI: So I want to try making now the Syrian version of ful.


SHAHANI: OK, I'm going to grab the red beans.

Helou got this recipe from Haj Abdo (ph), a vendor in Aleppo. All he made was ful and always had a crowd. That's how she first noticed the old man. This was years before a war broke out in Syria. She says his shop and the whole neighborhood is gone now. But back then, locals absolutely raved about his cafe. And while his ful is typically Syrian, it uses the sesame paste called tahini. Abdo had a special technique.

HELOU: He doesn't mash the beans.


HELOU: He puts the tahini sauce on the bottom of the bowl.

SHAHANI: OK, so that's the No. 1 issue we had is I could not find tahini sauce.

HELOU: Do you have yogurt?

SHAHANI: I do have yogurt.

HELOU: Take a bowl, and spread a little bit of yogurt on the bottom of the bowl.

SHAHANI: All right.

HELOU: So now season your beans with lemon juice, garlic and a bit of oil - and salt.

SHAHANI: Now what do I do?

HELOU: So the garnish on here is more tahini on top, pepper paste so you have a contrast of color.

SHAHANI: It's kind of like a cherry on top.

HELOU: And then if you have chopped parsley, you can garnish with chopped parsley.

SHAHANI: This ful has more texture. And each ingredient, especially the bits of garlic, really hits the tongue. Helou says this is her favorite ful. And while she was in Syria, she became a regular at Haj Abdo's cafe. Abdo eventually moved to Cairo to escape the Syrian civil war. Helou tried to find him and reconnect.

HELOU: Well, I asked around because he set up his ful stall there - cafe there. And by the time I found somebody who knew where he was, he had passed.

SHAHANI: Well, his recipe lives in your cookbook. That's for sure.

HELOU: Yeah. It's one of those meals that is basically a pauper's meal but that is absolutely delicious and irresistible.

SHAHANI: That was Anissa Helou teaching me how to make ful. You can find those recipes and many more in her cookbook "Feast: Food Of The Islamic World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SHY GIRLS SONG "LAY AND BE LONELY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.