May 6, 2011 10:30 pm

FT Foodies: Anissa Helou

What’s my greatest food weakness? Arab sweets like baklava

Anissa Helou grew up in Beirut and moved to London aged 21. She worked in arts and antiques before writing her first cookbook, Lebanese Cuisine, in 1995. Ten years later she wrote The Fifth Quarter: An Offal Cookbook, which is reissued this month.

What do you remember of the food growing up in Beirut?

The street sellers – they would cry out “watermelons” in the summer, “courgettes” in spring. And when the mulberries came into season an old man would come to our door with a white enamel tub full of them.

And what about meat?

You saw everything on the street. I remember the blood and the butchering, and I ate raw liver from when I was a baby. Offal was not considered anything but a delicacy. One of the dishes that I loved – and still love – is stuffed intestines and tripe. I’d watch my mother clean the tripe – it took a whole day to prepare.

Did you stop eating offal when you came to live in the UK?

In England you can’t buy it properly – it’s never clean enough. I asked my butcher for a pig’s head, and it was full of snot and hair. I couldn’t handle it. I only eat it here in really good restaurants.

What do you consider the most challenging part of an animal to eat?

I recently had donkey, deer, ox and lamb penises in Beijing, but it was like eating gristle. On my next trip to China I will try to eat monkey’s brains.

Do you think the new appetite for offal will last?

The problem here is that we don’t understand offal is a delicacy. People travel and try things abroad, but it’s still a struggle to make it mainstream.

What do you make yourself to eat at home?

Salads. At the moment it’s tabbouleh with cabbage, mint, spring onion and tomato, dressed in olive oil, lemon juice, salt and Aleppo pepper.

Where is the best offal restaurant in the world?

St John is the guru, but also Anthony Demetre at Arbutus and Les Deux Salons. I also had an amazing braised calf’s liver in Provence at Oustau de Baumanière.

Was there another career you might have followed?

I was in the art world before, which was very different. I didn’t read cookbooks – I didn’t consider them literature. It took six months of research to write the proposal for my first book. I thought it would be wonderful to pass on my mother’s recipes.

What’s your greatest food weakness?

Arab sweets like baklava. There is a shop in Damascus called Semiramis-Rose de Damas. They have rose jam cookies and tiny shortbread biscuits – I could eat a whole box at a sitting. It’s all exquisite.

‘Offal: The Fifth Quarter’ by Anissa Helou is published by Absolute Press, £25

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