Cookbooks are about journeys, and I don’t just mean the vicarious trips we’ve been taking over the pandemic by cooking recipes from far-off places. Here, I’m referring to the personal journeys that some authors offer in their books. Such as the journey Shahir Massoud takes in his cookbook, Eat, Habibi, Eat! . Massoud’s journey goes from being a public accountant to being a culinary school student, then from prepping food in the basement of a NY restaurant to being a host on the CBC program The Goods. Reading about Massoud’s journey in the introduction, I felt all the moments – the poignant and sweet to humorous. His journey is about perseverance but a perseverance that happens only with the love and support of family. Throughout Eat, Habibi, Eat! he takes the home cook through his journey while offering delicious recipes that are dear to him.
Eat, Habibi, Eat! is divided into two parts. In the first section of the book, Massoud outlines how to stock your pantry so that you have all the Middle Eastern pantry staples, the essential kitchen equipment you’ll need to make delicious food, and he offers kitchen tips to home cooks that will streamline and improve our techniques. The second section is organized into 7 chapters: In the Morning, Apps and Snacks, Soups and Sandwiches, Salads and Sides, Main Plates, Sweets to Finish, and Essentials. As Massoud says in the introduction, these recipes represent moments focused on celebration, family, and community and, it seems to me that whatever journey Massoud took whether it was to different places, like New York, or on another career path, these recipes of his childhood went with him. While these traditional Middle Eastern recipes are, as he says authentic to him, he encourages home cooks to have fun! Be playful and experiment in order to find enjoyment in our kitchens.
While the recipes within Eat, Habibi, Eat! aren’t plant-based and offer a wide-range of options, I found many recipes for my vegetarian family to enjoy. One of my favourite recipes from the book is the Black and White Hummus w/ Sun-Dried Tomato and Caramelized Lemon. Not only is this a colourful dish, but I also really liked the balance between the sweet/salty/sour/umami flavours. It is interesting that when lemon segments are baked slowly at a low temperature that they become sweet, and their signature sourness is mellowed. While hummus can feel rich, the addition of the lemons brightens. I made this hummus one day for lunch and I served it with warmed flatbread. The consensus was that I should make hummus like this all the time! Also, if you’ve never tried using black garlic or black sesame tahini before, this is the recipe you should start with (being on the shoulder of the pandemic lockdowns here in Nova Scotia, I’ve purchased both ingredients online).
There is a warm and inviting tone with Massoud’s writing, along with some self-effacing humour. Part of what makes the recipes so special is the way he connects them to his family. This book isn’t just about modern Egyptian cooking, it’s also about Massoud’s family, who have supported him through his culinary journey. When I first read the recipe head notes for the Glazed Orange and Spice Olive Oil Cake, I couldn’t help but to laugh out loud at Massoud’s description of his father’s diet: “deli meat, lettuce, mustard, and cake.” A picky eater if ever there was one, but, in the way Massoud tells us about it, you can feel the deep affection he has for his father and, the cake recipe he developed for his father to enjoy with his morning coffee is tremendously good. My daughter is always here when it’s a cake for breakfast kind of morning and, we lived our best lives as we sat in quiet contentment at the breakfast table, enjoying slices of this cake with hints of orange, anise, cardamom, and allspice.
It’s not just Massoud’s father that is present in the book, he shares his love for his mother and her recipes too. While the recipe for Mom’s Cheese Squares is meant as an hors d’oeuvre at family gatherings, I was enticed enough to make it for supper one evening — the cheese squares cut a bit larger and served with a side salad. The filling is lush and thick — full of ricotta cheese, blue cheese, cream cheese, and Grana Padano — which is then slathered between layers of buttered phyllo dough sheets. Baked in the oven, the resulting meal is both crunchy and butter with a thick and rich filling. I prefer this type of thick and luxuriant cheese filling to the melty cheese you find in a grilled cheese sandwich or on the top of a pizza. And the mild flavours of the ricotta and cream cheeses are balanced with the stronger flavours of the blue cheese and Grana Padano. I think the next time I make the cheese squares I’ll serve them with Mom’s Red Lentil Soup — another recipe straight from Massoud’s mother in which red lentils, tomatoes, garlic, celery, and spices (cumin and cinnamon) are combined to create a generous and hearty soup. I appreciate that this recipe is quick to make and can be served within an hour.
My husband is happy to eat whatever I make but, I know if something is really delicious when he says: “Make a note about this one so that you remember that it was really good and should be made again!” This was the case when I made the recipe for Koshary w/ Red Lentil Ragu. From the description in the recipe head notes, this recipe is the ultimate in Egyptian street-food and is a dish of many components: pasta, crispy chickpeas, Egyptian rice (a mix of broken vermicelli and medium-grain rice), caramelized onions, a thick harissa-y lentil tomato sauce, and a tangy dakka (a spicy and tangy condiment filled with garlic, chilies, vinegar, stock, spices, and cilantro). This recipe checks all the boxes for my husband’s favourite foods. The Koshary is a delicious partnership between Italian and Middle Eastern cuisine. While making the different elements of this recipe, I was reminded of how my paternal grandmother would stand cooking at the range — pots on all the elements — stirring and tending to each pot, enjoying cooking for her family. It warmed my heart to make this recipe because my kitchen smelled amazing and the dish that I served to my family was comforting and delicious.
Can a cookbook be like a close friend? I think it can when it’s written by a person who shares their intense connection to the recipes. While I don’t know Shahir Massoud or his family, there is something deeply warm and inviting about the way he presents the recipes within Eat, Habibi, Eat!. The home cook, an invited guest, into a place where the recipes are meant to nourish both with the ingredients that comprise the dish and the love infused into it. Even the title: Eat, Habibi, Eat! is dear and familiar — habibi translated from Arabic to mean “my darling.” By sharing his journey and recipes, he encourages the home cook and reminds us that the process of making a meal should be enjoyable.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Appetite by Random House for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.