Before houmous oozed into every refrigerator in the West, before Yotam Ottolenghi seduced the world with sumac and shakshouka, there was Claudia Roden, anthropologist, historian, memoirist and cook. Born in 1936 to a family of Egyptian Jews with roots in the Syrian city of Aleppo, she came to London via Paris in the 1950s. When people heard she was writing "A Book of Middle Eastern Food" (1968) they asked with barely veiled horror about sheep’s eyes and testicles. Instead she introduced them to sophisticated flavours and endless varieties, inspired by the same creative spirit responsible for the intricate decorations that cover the Arab world. For those worried that Jewish cuisine reached a modest zenith with gefilte fish, "A Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day" (1996) is revelatory. Roden tells the story of an uprooted people who since biblical times have wistfully longed for the foods they left behind. Thankfully she resisted friends’ warnings not to burden her readers with great chunks of history—her books are gorged with the past, and enriched by it.
KEY INFLUENCES Elizabeth David, whose books helped ease the "nostalgic sickness" Roden felt at being so far from home. Also, the writings of Maxime Rodinson, a French Orientalist, on the history of Arab food. But mostly Roden channels a thousand years of Middle Eastern and Jewish cooks, from the medieval palaces of Baghdad to the shtetls of eastern Europe.
TABLE MANNER Roden is succinct with her instructions (recipes are rarely more than a paragraph or two long) and generous with her quantities —unsurprising for a Jewish Egyptian for whom persuading a friend to stay for lunch is "a triumph and a precious honour". She tends, too, to bursts of enthusiasm, introducing a chicken, artichoke, preserved lemon and olive tagine with the words, "this is marvellous!" And if she’s faithful to tradition, she is rarely slavish about it. In an essay on the "quasi-mystical character" of couscous and the Berbers’ age-old (but lengthy) ways of preparing it, Roden quotes a Tunisian couscous-factory owner who muttered to her that it can be cooked "in a microwave".
FAVOURITE INGREDIENTS Fried, roasted, grilled or mashed, aubergines—the poor man’s caviar –appear often. Yogurt, too; the West, she chides, has yet to discover the vast number of dishes "refreshed, soothed and glorified" by its addition. Exotic foodstuffs appear infrequently, a relic, perhaps, of the limitations of grocers in 1960s London.
TYPICAL DISH Tagliatelle with chicken from the Jewish ghetto in Venice. The proverbial Jewish soul food, roast chicken, is reimagined via a watery city better known for its itsy-bitsy cicchetti. A combination of fleshy sweet raisins, buttery pine nuts, meaty scraps and pasta, all schmaltzy with chicken fat, surprises and delights in seven typically simple steps.
WHAT WORKS More than you think when you start cooking. A Moroccan Passover stew of lamb and prunes (inspired by the local tradition of serving meat sweetened with honey on festive occasions) begins off-puttingly, with lumps of lamb in a worryingly insipid gravy. But at the last minute, once you add the prunes, the sauce thickens. Have faith.
WHAT DOESN’T The names of dishes in the early books, as something gets lost in translation. "Fish cooked in the oven" and "minced-meat fingers" do not inspire a rush to the stove. Melokhia, a soup with the consistency of snot that Roden freely admits "no one but we Egyptians like", is also challenging.
COOK HER BECAUSE She demonstrates, with concision and passion, how cooking and eating "shows one’s love".