It took me a few months to get around to read Mezze to Milk Tart, the latest book by Sydney’s own Cecile Yazbek. Now that I’ve finally had a chance to sit down and go through it, I’ll tell you upfront, it’s wonderful. Yazbek, a Lebanese who grew up in the old South Africa (hence the Mezze to Milk Tart), ran a vegetarian cookery school in Sydney and is the author of Olive Trees Around My Table, her memoire about growing up in South Africa under apartheid. Yazbek became a vegetarian early in her youth for political reasons; she couldn’t justify eating meat as the cost of a meal for her family could feed a poor South African family for a month on a plant-based diet. Mezze to Milk Tart is her vegetarian cook book, full of a lifetime of vegetarian recipes.
Regular readers of my blog probably know where I stand with regards to meat eating (I’m for it). So, a book on vegetarian cooking might not seem like the ideal subject for me to be reviewing, given my bias toward an animal-based diet. But Yazbek’s book really appeals to me, for several reasons.
Last October I ran a series of secret dinners, one of which was a vegetarian event. One of the main challenges I wanted to overcome was to showcase the role of “vegetables” in a vegetarian diet, since, as much as I am a supporter of an animal-based diet, I am equally in complete opposition to a grain-based diet. My food had to focus on real vegetables, nuts and plant-based fats, and I believe I did so successfully. Focusing on grains (disregarding their detrimental effects on health) is an easy way out for the vegetarian cook. There are so many wonderful dishes one can make with vegetables without relying on grains, and Yazbek seems to agree. Yazbek’s book is an example of real generosity in vegetarian cookery and for the most part focuses on true vegetables. Think okra, artichokes and eggplants, with recipes so deliciously simple that often the list of ingredients is longer than the cooking method itself. I quite like that. Also, her cooking is richer in legumes than it is in grains, and that makes me happy.
There are also stories between chapters where Yazbek tells us about her life and her food. Read about her journey out to Sydney’s west in search of mafrouki, a traditional Lebanese dessert of semolina, clotted cream and candied orange blossoms. Lebanese story-telling genes are evident. Her stories are almost timeless and folkloric, with wonderfully stereotypical characters described with the skill of a writer, not a celebrity chef.
The book itself is slightly different to what we’ve come to expect from a cookbook. It is in paperback, has more photos of people and places than of food, which makes it lack the glamour people look for in a cook book. But I feel that what it lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in honesty and content. The writing is wonderful and the recipes are rich. The cuisines Yazbek borrows from are perfect for her topic, where the dishes are not simply trying to replace meat, they are wholeheartedly and generously vegetarian. You can find Mezze and Milk Tart on the Wakefield Press website.