I first saw Mrs. Atalla on a television show a few years ago. Chef Ramzi, a famous Lebanese chef, was touring the world meeting Lebanese expats and immigrant restaurateurs and this was filmed during his weekly thirty-minute documentary.
This particular episode took place in London and while Chef Ramzi was interviewing Mrs. Atalla in her Lebanese restaurant, she mentioned that she was working on a cookbook. I saw it sold in bookstores in Beirut the following summer and grabbed it.
What I liked about this cookbook:
- Beautiful color photographs (about 50) interspersed throughout the book. Having struggled with Lebanese food photo rendering, I was able to appreciate the fine treatment of hard-to-photograph dishes like stuffed carrots and stuffed zucchini in yogurt sauce.
- The size and weight of the book, about a standard letter size, with 236 pages; perfect to leaf through or carry into a kitchen, not heavy.
- This is a good, rather generic, book on traditional Lebanese cuisine with easy-to-follow recipes that will provide a good introduction to this cuisine.
- A short section of the book provides conversion tables, a list of necessary equipment and a list of common spices and condiments in the Lebanese pantry, as well as some suppliers in the London area.
- A section that contains 19 recipes for basic sauces and foods such as pickles, dressings, and the ubiquitous syrup.
- A section with 11 recipes for soups, followed by a section for mezzes including recipes for dishes that are very popular in Lebanon but not well-known in the West such as lamb brains, tongues or kidneys and sweetbreads; (of course falafel, hummus and tabbouleh are all included). Recipes for savory pastries such as sambousek and fatayer, as well as a few recipes for kibbeh, including one of her own creations kibbeh makhtoum, created at the request of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Makhtoum, which is a basic lamb kibbeh with a vegetarian stuffing.
- A section on homestyle traditional dishes, such as chicken with mouloukhieh, stuffed chicken and rice, stuffed zucchini, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. A recipe for the Palestinian dish, mousakhan as well as one for stuffed turkey.
- A section on fish, with eight recipes both classic and innovative, such as the traditional samke harra and the creative fish fatayer.
- A section on traditional rice dishes such as the famous mansaf (lamb and yogurt stew), makloubet bitijan (a rice, lamb and eggplant casserole) and others.
- Finally a section on grilled meats, with classics such as shish taouk (chicken in a garlic marinade), and lamb kebabs.
- A desserts chapter offers a dozen classic recipes such as muhallabiya, ma’amoul, nammoura as well as one recipe for a rich carrot cake named express passion cake (with carrots, banana, pineapple and walnuts).
- The very last section of the book entails a pita bread recipe as well as some classic Lebanese flatbread recipes such as sfeeha and zaatar man’oushe as well as some traditional drinks such as coffee and various juices and herbal teas.
- The recipes are tested and work.
What I did not like about the book:
- I found it odd that some recipes, like the hummus recipe, did not call for any garlic!
- I was disappointed not to find a recipe for sambousek dough; instead Mrs. Atalla suggests using ready-made puff pastry.
- There is no background information or a historical narrative for each recipe.
In conclusion, this is a good investment if you are interested in Lebanese cuisine; it is user-friendly and it is of chock-ful of excellent recipes; it is not exhaustive though and does not offer much in-depth cultural or background information, other than a few paragraphs at the beginning of the book related to the mezze tradition.