Bringing back Claudia Roden’s past through food

The Cairo-born daughter of the Egyptian-Jewish Douek family, exiled after 1956, Claudia Roden has made her name as a writer of cookery books both scholarly and personal. Launching her latest book, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean, she can be credited for having introduced Middle Eastern food to Britain. Major feature by Melissa Clark in The New York Times :

Claudia Roden preparing a spread in her London cottage

LONDON — If you’ve ever swiped a supple piece of pita bread through a plate of garlicky hummus and your family roots aren’t in the Middle East, you may have Claudia Roden to thank.

In 1968, in the modestly titled “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” the 32-year-old Egyptian exile gave the non-Arabic-speaking world one of its first detailed looks at this rich cuisine. Through hundreds of traditional, comprehensive and carefully tested recipes, like herb-flecked Lebanese tabbouleh and Syrian lamb kibbe, she introduced western home cooks to the subtle, extensive art of Middle Eastern cooking.

Before her book, she could find no volume of recipes like this published in English or in any European language. If you wanted to make baba ghanouj, you might persuade a Turkish or Egyptian cook to share family secrets passed down through generations. But let’s face it, before 1968, if you were living in Britain, chances were good you’d never tasted baba ghanouj.

Over the course of her 50-year career, Ms. Roden, 85, has helped revolutionize the way the British cook and eat. She taught them how to blend cucumbers with yogurt and garlic into a creamy salad, how to simmer lentils with cumin to make a warming soup, and how to fold phyllo stuffed with cheese and herbs into flaky bite-size pastries.

Paul Levy, chairman emeritus of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, of which Ms. Roden was a founding member, said her scholarship on food was part of a growing cultural trend.

Along with culinary writers like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Sri Owen and even Julia Child, he said, she deepened the conversation around food to address questions of culture, context, history and identity.

Her dozen cookbooks, particularly “The Book of Jewish Food,” produced a genre of works that is at once literary and deeply researched while still being, at heart, practical manuals on how to make delicious meals.

When Ms. Roden started writing “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” Ms. David had already published a handful of Middle Eastern recipes — notably, hummus bi tahina — in her far-ranging “A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950. But it was Ms. Roden’s work that took on the entire cuisine of the Middle East in depth, in ways both scholarly and highly personal.

Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef, cookbook author and New York Times food columnist,credits Ms. Roden with laying the foundation for chefs like him.

“‘A Book of Middle Eastern Food’ has been around for so long it feels like prehistory,” he said, adding, “it was really revelatory for its time.”

Although it’s hard to imagine, in the midst of Britain’s current love affair with Middle Eastern flavors, that the cuisine was considered outlandish and unappealing in the 1960s. Ms. Roden’s book was all but ignored when it came out, on the heels of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Britain supported Israel.

“At that moment, no one was interested in the food of the enemy culture,” said Ms. Roden, who identifies as a Sephardi/Mizrahi Jew (Mizrahi is the Israeli term for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa). “When the book came out, people would always ask me if all the recipes were for testicles and eyeballs.”

She worked on those two canonical books for a combined total of 25 years. But she wasn’t done. When her children grew up and left home, she left, too, traveling across the world to research her books “The Food of Italy,” “The Food of Spain” and “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon.”

On these trips, she delighted in talking to anyone about food and culture: people on trains and buses, waiters in cafes and maids in hotels. She’d ask them what they liked to eat and if they had any recipes. Traveling alone, Ms. Roden had a knack for getting herself invited by strangers to try a local specialty, like the octopus-and-potato salad from the Greek island of Skopelos in her most recent cookbook.

“As I was walking by a family eating on their terrace, they invited me in to share their octopus salad and a bottle of wine,” she wrote. “It was heaven.”

Mr. Levy, of the Oxford Symposium, calls Ms. Roden a culinary anthropologist.

“She’s gone around and done what is the equivalent of field work, then dealt with it in a sophisticated, analytical way,” he said. “She’s a serious thinker.”

Of all her books, “Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean,” is the most poetic, the most lyrical (with photos by Susan Bell), and perhaps the one that most unites all of her many facets.

Containing 100 recipes and spare but warm prose, it has an intimacy that shows these are the dishes she’d cook if you came to her house, gathered from her lifelong travels. But instead of striving to faithfully record someone’s recipe, as she does in other books, she has taken the creative license to tweak them to suit herself. There’s an emphasis on vegetables and grains, and in many cases, simplified, streamlined techniques (and even an occasional one-pot meal).

The food writer Nigella Lawson, a friend of Ms. Roden since Ms. Lawson was 19, calls this book a distillation of Ms. Roden’s joyful, generous spirit. Reading it is like talking with her in her garden, Ms. Lawson said.

“All of a sudden, there are all these exquisite little plates in front of you, and she’s telling you to dip something in olive oil. And you have this sense of what it would be like at her house in Cairo, sitting on her terrace, watching the sunset.”

Which is, of course, exactly what Ms. Roden has set out to do.

“Writing this book was a way of bringing back my past,” Ms. Roden said as the light cast a warm glow over her garden, “and enjoying all of my memories.”

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