Claudia Roden, hummus queen of north London

Make hummus, not war! Is Claudia Roden’s watchword. The Egyptian-Jewish cookery writer, profiled in The Financial Times,  is responsible for launching exotic ingredients on to the British market. It is a pity she repeats the Palestinian claim that Israel stole their land,  food and cuisine, without also insisting that Jews in the Middle East have been eating hummus for centuries, and that she is a dispossessed refugee from Egypt.

Claudia Roden: ‘food opens doors’ (photo: The Guardian)

As a young Egyptian Jew in
London, Claudia Roden could not have foreseen that she would help
kick-start the British nation’s love affair with hummus.

Roden’s family fled to the UK during the 1956 Suez Crisis
when the Jews were expelled from Egypt, leaving behind their fortune and
their home. After just over a decade of banishment Roden published her
opus A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

The
doyenne of culinary writing, and mother of three, is credited with
introducing such foreign and then unknown delights as tahini and
falafel, sumac and tabbouleh, cumin and cardamom to the staid English
dining table.

Born in 1936 to an old Syrian-Jewish merchant family, Roden
grew up among the leafy streets and 19th-century villas of Zamalek
island in central Cairo.

While guttural Arabic was the language of the people, Roden
spoke French, Italian and English at home. Her grandmother talked
soothingly to her in Ladino, the tongue of the Sephardic Jews driven
from Spain in 1492.

We meet on a blustery London day and Roden dishes up an
impromptu lunch of warming pumpkin soup, scallops and seared salmon in
her Hampstead Garden home. She speaks of the “mosaic” of Cairene Jews:
her family hailed from Istanbul and Aleppo, where her great-grandfather
Haham Abraham ha Cohen Douek fathered 26 children).

“It was a time of tolerance,” Roden insists. “I remember a
time of great happiness and not a cloud. Well, suddenly things go
wrong.”

Roden was sent to Paris aged 15 for school and later to
London’s St Martin’s School of Art. After her parents were drummed out
of their homeland they joined her in the UK. Suddenly destitute, she
quit studying to work. Three years later she married Paul Roden, a
clothes importer of Russian descent.

“It was traumatic to think we would never go back and we
would lose everybody,” she says. “We were a community, a very big
extended family. We thought everybody was a relative in Cairo and
Alexandria.”

Making matters worse was “the horror of the food!” recoils
Rod

en. “Macaroni cheese and fish in a white sauce. Everything looked
beige: pale, creamy beige — there was no colour. Hardly any tomatoes,
hardly any peppers, no aubergine.”

Friends and family dropped by on the way to new lives
scattered across the globe. Cuisine, once prepared by chefs, became
central to the banished who exchanged recipes saying: “I’ll give you
this cake so you remember me.”

Roden started to jot down dishes. Into her cookbook —
lovingly bolstered by folk tales, rituals, and a record of a recipe’s
roots — went her grandmother’s pies stuffed with eggplant and spinach
and ful medames, a street food of puréed brown beans.

After nine years of research, Roden published A Book of Middle Eastern Food
in 1968, just one year after the six-day war. Familiarising a sceptical
public with strange ingredients from a conflict-ridden region was no
easy task.

“When I wrote aubergine, I explained they were baby marrows.
I can’t believe that now!” she exclaims. “I would say pitta bread is
‘bread with a pouch’.”

Now pushing her eighth decade, Roden lives where she has
always lived: in Hampstead, north London, close by communities of
Orthodox Jews and African and Middle Eastern immigrants. Her home —
where she raised her children on her own following her divorce — is a
rambling 1906 Arts and Crafts house.

There is a wild unkempt garden and a cosy kitchen decked
with Portuguese tiles and a chunky wooden table where, after lunch, she
serves Earl Grey tea with biscuits from Marks and Spencer.

Over the years Roden claims many supermarkets have based
their recipes — stuffed vine leaves or cheese filo triangles — on
Roden’s dozens of cookbooks. In the 1960s “you couldn’t buy filo pastry
or couscous”. As her debut work became a bestseller the supermarkets
“started asking me what they should stock — gradually they even had harissa”.

Today Roden is not precious about her concoctions, such as
her celebrated orange and almond cake, since adapted by chefs such as
Nigella Lawson. Roden reasons: “It wasn’t originally mine — it was
actually my sister-in-law’s grandma’s. So you can’t appropriate a
recipe.”

If anything, Roden chaffs against a “culture demanding
creativity and innovation — that every chef has to make his own mark”.
By contrast she wants to connect with the past.

“You can follow the route of a dish. I could know where
somebody came from, even which town, by their version of a dish,” says
Roden, adding, somewhat wistfully: “Or I could. Now everything is mixed
up.”

With her almond eyes, tan skin, and whiff of exoticism,
people often ask Roden if she feels British. “And they think I should
because I’ve been here for more than 55 years. But I am international
and so is London. So I belong here better than anywhere else.” Still,
Roden “feels Egyptian of the Egypt that was. It’s not the same any
more.”

Last year, the writer contributed dishes to London’s
inaugural pop-up Conflict Kitchen alongside the Israeli chef Yotam
Ottolenghi. Breaking bread together was proffered as a way of breaching
cultural divides (it does not always work; last November Pittsburgh’s
Conflict Kitchen had to temporarily close after receiving threats).

Roden, though, is adamant about the power of food to appease, appearing in the 2012 documentary Make Hummus Not War.
Over the years this seemingly innocuous concoction of mashed chickpeas
has had significant bite — and become a symbol for cultural combat in
the Middle East. Adopted by the Israelis in the 1950s as a national
dish, many Arabic countries counter it as their own.

“The thing is there is now a lot of anger — where
Palestinians feel that the Jews have not only stolen their land but
their food, their cuisine, their culture,” says Roden. Yet in the Middle
East, where Roden still travels, amid Islam’s “culture of hospitality”,
“food opens doors”.

She confides: “It’s wonderful to be going into their
kitchens: kitchens are a place of intimacy where they open up and tell
you things that they wouldn’t in their living room.”

Back in her own kitchen, Roden is extolling the virtues of molokhia, green leaves mixed with chicken, rabbit or duck into a thick soup. The chef admits that molokhia’s glutinous, slippery texture can be off-putting for outsiders.

But it “makes me and all the exiles go aahhh — you know,
very, very excited and nostalgic. Oh, I adore it!” she exclaims, raising
her hands to the heavens. “I go crazy for it. At the last minute they
fry crushed coriander and garlic — and this is the smell of Egypt.”

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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