`Mediterranean Street Food' by Lebanese culinary writer Anissa Helou is an example of my second most favorite type of cookbook (first being good single dish or single ingredient books on things such as soups, casseroles, potatoes, or eggs) in that it gives us recipes which all fit into an excellent theme of dishes for entertaining, while being both informative and entertaining while discussing its subject. Other great titles in this vein are Joyce Goldstein's `Enoteca' (Italian wine bar cuisine) and Ellen Leong Blonder's `Dim Sum' on the famous Chinese (primarily Cantonese) `tea lunch' cuisine so well transplanted to San Francisco and other American Chinatowns.
The first thing which recommends Ms. Helou's book is that while it presents something from virtually all the great cuisines of the Mediterranean, there is a relatively small space devoted to dishes from Spain, southern France, and Italy. Even though Italy is the 900 pound gorilla of Mediterranean cuisine, it doesn't contribute much to this book because the author is much more familiar with the food of the Levant and North Africa and Italy, France, and Spain have such great restaurant traditions, there is little true street food to be found in these countries. One byproduct of this fact is that this book teaches us a new word for Italian eatery to join the lexicon of restaurante, trattoria, osteria, and enoteca. This is a friggitorie or `fry shop' which may be indoors, but traditionally serves people at a counter at which they stand to eat. From Italy, most of Ms. Helou's examples seem to come from either Liguria (Genoa) or Sicily. But, far more of the dishes come from the Arab and Berber influenced part of the Mediterranean.
The first relatively short chapter is on soups. This is no surprise, as soup dispensing and eating requires a lot more equipment and involvement than a snack you can hold in your hand. The most instructive aspect of these five recipes is that a lot of this street food seems to be based on cheap ingredients, either on beans or animal parts such as tripe which are but a step from being discarded offal. The exception that proves the rule is the snail soup based on a Mediterranean delicacy.
The second, much longer chapter is on `Snacks, Salads, and Dips'. This chapter has a lot of old favorites such as the Spanish potato omelet (tortilla), the Italian spinach omelet (frittata), Italian vegetable meatloaf (polpettone), salads with feta, cabbage, beans, and eggplant, plus lots and lots of fried foods and dips. Frying, grilling, and breads seem to be the most common styles of street food, which seems odd to Americans, where the most common street food is steamed hot dogs.
Breads, including pizzas and flatbreads is the next, second longest chapter. This may be the most interesting chapter in the book, as once you remove the pizza and foccacia recipes, you are left with a great source of breads from North Africa, the Levant, and Asia Minor (Turkey). By far the most familiar of these is the pita, but there are many others.
Now that we have done breads, the next chapter is on sandwiches, which in most cases are more like Greek wraps than Italian paninis. By far the most unusual recipe in this chapter is for two variations on a `French Fries' sandwich. The author identifies the origin of this `delicacy' to Tripoli, but states that it is actually much easier to find in Paris now than in Northern Africa. What will those crazy French eat next? For Americans, the most interesting recipes may be for lamb and chicken `shawarma'. It took a bit of careful reading and attention to the pictures to discover that this is the Lebanese version of a very popular Greek dish called souvlaki, and often in Greek-American restaurants called gyros. What makes these recipes interesting is that they do not require the great vertical rotating skewer and heat source.
The next chapter is on `barbecues', but, as so many people do, these are not true American barbecue using smoke and slow cooking, they are really grilling recipes, primarily kebabs, brochettes, and kefta (highly seasoned balls of meat skewered and grilled like a kebab).
Next is another major category, one pot meals, which has a lot of fairly familiar recipes such as baked pasta, stewed lamb, couscous, and paella.
The last chapter is on `Sweets and Desserts'. Most of the recipes involve a whole lot more sugar than the classic Italian desserts. Here we have puddings, syrups, compotes, pancakes, clotted cream, cakes, pies, fritters, shortbread, cookies, granitas and ice creams.
Another novelty discovered in this book is the fact that the Tunisians have a habit of naming things in totally inappropriate ways when compared to dishes using these names from other parts of the Mediterranean. The Tunisian tagine is not the same as the famous Moroccan stew; it is a `cross between a quiche and a tortilla, thicker and denser than either'. What makes this interesting rather than confusing is the fact that our good author always gives both the native name of the dish and a clear English translation. The only times this scheme is less than ideal is when some Italian and Spanish dishes are given an English name of omelet, when almost all readers of this book will know the name frittata and tortilla, and consider the name `omelet', a distinctly French dish with an equally distinct technique, to be a misnomer. But then, not everyone is as finicky about words as I am, so I'm sure everyone will survive to enjoy this delightfully written book.
Recommended for entertaining to a street food theme as a means to broaden your culinary horizons.