“My most vivid scent from Beirut was that of gardenias. Our neighbour’s garden was full of gardenia trees and when they flowered, the smell was so heady and divine that I would stay outside just to enjoy it,” recalls Lebanese-born Anissa Helou. As a journalist, chef and prolific cookbook author, she has travelled the world collecting recipes and learning how different nationalities prepare their food. Yet when I ask her for a favourite scent memory, it’s the perfume of Lebanese gardenias that she describes. Helou left Lebanon in 1973 to study interior design in London, where she worked as an art consultant, before writing Lebanese Cuisine, her first cookbook, in 1994.
Lebanese Cuisine not only enriched our understanding of Levantine food culture, but also propelled Helou onto an odyssey. One of its milestones is her latest – and ninth – book, Feast: Food of the Islamic World (£45). Helou travelled through the Muslim world, to countries such as Senegal, India, Uzbekistan and Morocco, in pursuit of new flavours and timeless dishes. The result is a carefully researched book of more than 300 recipes and just as many stories.
And within its 500-plus pages, Helou sweeps us along on her journey. We follow her down the alleyways of the ancient city of Hyderabad to taste biryani, and then compare how this dish is prepared in Indonesia, Qatar or United Arab Emirates. We learn about the local occasions, festivals and celebrations for feasting. We meet the cooks. We hear their voices. Feast is filled with aromas, such as grilled scallion pancakes made by the indigenous Uyghur people in China’s western Xinjiang region, the sweet-and-sour fragrance of Iranian pomegranate soup and the voluptuous richness of Moroccan rice pudding. It is truly a feast for the senses, and with Helou’s precise instructions, the same heady experience can be replicated – at home.
Indeed, the sensory dimension is of paramount importance for understanding cuisines of the Islamic world. Food is prepared by relying on one’s sense of smell, to estimate the cooking time for onions, the ripeness of bread dough or the extent to which spices have to be roasted. The use of floral waters, in both sweet and savoury dishes, further heightens the aromas and enjoyment of food. In the Levantine kitchen, for instance, two essential fragrances are rose and orange blossom waters. As Helou further explains, “Then there are the scents of spices like that of mahlep [fragrant kernel of a variety of cherry], mastic, cinnamon or allspice.”
Reading Feast – and cooking from it – I made my own discoveries. As a trained perfumer, I was delighted by the complexity of Helou’s spice blends. She includes more than a dozen of them, and each has the elegance of a perfume formula. The harmony of the Lebanese seven-spice mixture makes me think of Bois Oriental by Serge Lutens (€310 for 75ml EDP), a fragrance that layers cinnamon and allspice on a base of Atlas cedarwood. Helou’s saffron-flavoured fritters inspire a scent such as L’Artisan Parfumeur Safran Troublant (£105 for 100ml EDT), while her recipe for mint tea could be a blueprint for a fresh cologne, similar to Guerlain’s Herba Fresca (£52 for 75ml EDT). I couldn’t resist asking what fragrances Helou wore. “My favourite perfume is rose essence,” she says. “I also like amber, jasmine and musk, but if I had to choose one, it would be rose.” The queen of the garden is a fitting flower for the queen of the kitchen.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.