Anissa focuses on the cuisines and culinary heritage of the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa. Born and raised between Beirut, Lebanon, and Mashta el-Helou, Syria, she knows the Mediterranean as only a well-traveled native can.
How did you get started on this career path?
It was kind of a coincidence. I used to be in the art world and wanted to write a book about collecting, as I had accumulated a huge collection with relatively little money. I was concentrating in fields that were considered unfashionable and I wanted to write about other collectors that were doing, or that had done, something similar. My newly acquired agent invited me to meet a friend of hers, who was Lebanese, and they started talking about cookbooks. As I listened, I realized there wasn't a Lebanese cookbook that was user-friendly for a Western audience or for people who don’t know anything about Lebanese food. It was the Civil War and I was thinking about all the young people who didn't have the opportunities that I had, to see what was going on in other countries. For those people, a cookbook that represented a foreign culture would be very useful. So, in spite of not knowing anything about cookbooks, I threw the idea out there and my agent mentioned she had a publisher who was looking for somebody to write a Lebanese cookbook. I told her immediately that she had found her person.
It was a kind of rash decision, but she knew everybody in the food world and quickly introduced me. Along with a few mentors I had a boyfriend who was absolutely obsessed with cooking and cookbooks, he had a huge collection, which was very helpful. I originally predicted that it would take me three months to write, but I got seriously into it and it ended up taking about three years.
What is the value in sharing Lebanese food culture with a Western audience?
It’s always interesting to introduce an audience to a culinary tradition that it’s unfamiliar with. It’s rewarding because then, if they love it, you’re sharing a love for the same food. It’s also rewarding to see how proud Lebanese people are to have their cuisine better and more widely-known by the rest of the world. These recipes will become adapted over time, and that’s how new food develops.
Have the flavours and dishes of Lebanese cuisine been well-received by audiences?
It certainly took time. When I first released my Lebanese cookbook, just over twenty years-ago, we tried to convince a very elegant food store to stock Freekeh* and they were completely uninterested. Now it’s the latest “in” ingredient. Basically, what happens with cookbooks is that they expose readers to a cuisine, then it’s up to a chef to adopt the ingredients and adapt the recipes to make them trendy. Everybody then latches on and wants to use these new ingredients and cook the same recipes, although they’re quite different.
*Freekeh is a cereal grain that’s been, for centuries, a staple of Middle Eastern diets.
Have you found that your background in art and design has served as an advantage to what you do now?
I’m always very conscious of the aesthetic of the food, whether it’s in the preparation, the presentation or the cooking. There’s a certain aesthetic to eating, like art; everything is beautiful and everything is sophisticated. My approach to food is more elegant than that of a typical Lebanese grandmother; although, I have to say that both my mother and grandmother are very sophisticated in the kitchen as well! Lebanese cuisine is not quite as aesthetically pleasing as Japanese cuisine, it lacks that emphasis on appearance, but it still holds value to presentation.
Throughout your career you’ve received many accolades and awards for your work in a variety of fields, one of the most impressive of these being your distinction, in 2013, as being one of the 100 most powerful Arab women in the world - what does this title mean to you?
It was flattering, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really mean much. One day you’re on a list like that and the next you’re not. I’m happy to be recognized for my work, it speaks for what I’m doing much better. The meaningful part of what I do is my research and recording of food traditions and cultural practices that are, in some cases, at risk of disappearing. Many of them need to be recorded for the next generation who may otherwise not have the opportunity to get to know them as I have. When I started writing about food, there was little about food history, it wasn't considered a serious field of research. Today, this has changed, which is great because food is such a major part of culture.
Why has food history gained such an increased amount of interest today?
People realized how important it is. It’s such an important part of all of our lives, as a part of social-exchange and our general history. Everybody eats, and the exchange of food between people is so much more than just that. It represents tradition, hospitality, culture, how we relate to one another and how we receive each other. It’s crucial to understand the culture of a certain people. It’s also a wonderful way to become introduced to a culture.
While I was working in art and travelling, it was a glamourous world but I didn't get to know people as well, and certainly not so easily as I get to know them now. When I used to go to Syria, I could stop any lady in the street and talk to her about certain dishes and she would be totally happy to talk to me. That experience is almost across the board in all countries around the world. You start talking about food and everybody wants to join in.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new book that should be finished by the end of the year. I’m also building my house in Sicily, where I’m hoping to have my teaching kitchen. I want people to come here to learn my cuisine; from the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Sicilian with Arab influences.
What are you looking forward to sharing at this year’s Terroir 10?
I’d like to share my research in food history, talking about the Middle East in terms of what was - as in cases such as Syria - and what still is, and how culinary traditions in this region have and continue to develop. I want to inspire people to learn more about my part of the world.