Category Archives: Book Reviews

mezze

Mezze to Milk Tart – Book Review

By | Book Reviews | No Comments

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.

Mouneh by Barbara Abdeni Massaad – Book Review

By | Book Reviews | 11 Comments

This is my first ever book review. My intention is to introduce you, dear reader, to books that inspire me to cook, ones that teach me new things, or ones that contain extremely valuable information. It so happens that this first book, Mouneh, does these things all at once.

Book Highlights

  • A comprehensive work
  • Contains recipes for lesser-known aspects of Lebanese food
  • A one-of-a-kind book which has, for the first time, made these recipes publicly available
  • Chefs and cooks will be inspired and educated about old techniques and obscure dishes that are absolutely stunning
  • Has beautiful photography
  • A must have for anyone serious or even slightly interested about Lebanese food

Book Review

To call the task of putting together a book like Mouneh daunting would be a gross understatement. Mouneh is the Lebanese word for the larder, the supplies and provisions that saw village people through the rough Lebanese winters. Weighing in at 592 pages, Mouneh is a comprehensive work, encompassing recipes for pretty much all Lebanese pantry items, from the well-known to the obscure. Author Barbara Abdeni Massaad is an American born of Lebanese parents and she is more than passionate about preserving both pantry items and Lebanese traditions. It takes individuals like Barbara who feel a connection to a country but see it through an outsider’s perspective to fully appreciate the value and need to document its fragile traditions. This work is the result of years of research and experimentation to produce accurate, authentic recipes categorised by month to give the reader an idea of what can be preserved at that time of year. Many of the recipes contained in Mouneh have never been previously documented or made this easily available.

In the style of her first book Man’oushé, which is dedicated in its entirety to manakish, the Levantine pizza, Barbara has written Mouneh in a personal tone. The recipes, it becomes obvious, are not her own, but belong to the farmers and artisan producers she introduces us to. She relays her stories and encounters with heart, and shares the recipes she has gathered from numerous people living all over Lebanon.

In addition to doing all the writing, Barbara has also done most of the photography. Her portrayal of wonderful and often exotic ingredients largely contributes to the pleasure of reading Mouneh. The book explodes with colour and the images of farmers in their fields or producers preparing their recipes speak a thousand words.

I aim to provide honest, balanced reviews, so here’s some dwelling on the negatives. In my opinion, the book could have used an editor to give it the once over as sometimes, the sentences could be better structured and there are some minor, infrequent spelling mistakes. My second criticism is common to most books I’ve seen come out of Lebanon, though it is observed less with Mouneh. Here, the layout and the typography could be better handled. A more suitable font could have been selected, the images are sometimes placed in awkward positions on the page, and in some cases the text clashes with its background and becomes difficult to read.

All in all, these are minor issues that would not stand in the way of Mouneh becoming a true classic. To me, Mouneh has become my first reference for Lebanese preserves. No other book has gone to such lengths to describe these recipes in such a serious, well-researched manner. Non-Lebanese readers will truly enter a new and colourful world of Lebanese food, one that is very distinct from any other Lebanese cook book, as it relates to a completely different facet of our cuisine. You won’t find a recipe for hummus here, but instead, you will learn how to make orange blossom petal jam, pickled green almonds, candied pumpkin and a plethora of other Lebanese classics that until now have been known mostly to a handful of the Lebanese. Barbara has done the Lebanese people a great service in producing Mouneh, and I, for one, am very grateful.

You can buy the book here: http://www.buylebanese.com/browse.asp?pr=596&x=2&y=4

Book Score

Content: 7.5/10
Recipes: 10/10
Layout: 7/10
Total: 24.5/30

Additional Information

  • I heard about Barbara when she left a comment on my Manakish post
  • Barbara is also a blogger. Her blog can be found here: http://myculinaryjourneythroughlebanon.blogspot.com
  • In the interest of full disclosure, Barbara is one of my Facebook contacts, but I personally purchased the book and have written this review with no bias or favouritism