If I were writing a script for a movie like Julie & Julia, (Julia Child), my movie would be called “Ronit & Claudia.” Claudia Roden that is. Ms. Roden is one of the most fascinating cookbook authors that I have ever encountered. Her books are filled with compelling discourses about Jewish and Middle Eastern history, geography, and culture. Her recipes, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, are surprisingly accessible.
Claudia Roden was born in Cairo, Egypt. She lived there until age fifteen, becoming proficient in Arabic, French, English, and Italian. For her last three years of high school she was sent to boarding school in Paris. Three years later she moved to London to study art. In 1956, after the Suez Crisis, her relatives left Egypt and joined her in London. The Roden clan reminisced about the life they left behind over the old familiar foods that they would prepare in exile. They were a family of wealthy merchants, and the women had never cooked in Egypt.
Ms. Roden married an Ashkenazi man, whose mother initially refused to eat Sephardic delicacies. The couple had three children. When her children were grown, Claudia Roden taught Middle Eastern cooking classes, worked as a journalist, and hosted a television show. She also wrote cookbooks, and won the James Beard Award, the Andre Simon Memorial Fund Award for Best Food Book, the Glenfiddich Best Food Book Award, and the Gourmand World Media Special Award of the Jury. Her books are available in both paper and electronic versions.
Claudia Roden wrote her first cookbook, A Book Of Middle Eastern Food, in 1968. At this time, a tradition of writing cookbooks did not exist in the Middle East. Recipes were passed down in families. This inspired Claudia to preserve the culture she had left behind by writing down the recipes. She would get these recipes by talking to all sorts of people from the Middle East who were living in London, and by corresponding with friends and friends of friends who were dispersed all over the world. To get Persian recipes, she called the Iranian embassy, and asked to meet with the diplomats’ wives. When told that the only thing that she wanted to discuss was food, they could not refuse her! For this book, Roden researched some of the oldest surviving Middle Eastern culinary manuals at the Bodleian Library in Oxford University. In these handwritten manuscripts in Arabic from the ninth century, she recognized some of the recipes handed down by the oral tradition in her own family. In 2009, Claudia Roden expanded and updated this book. She called it The New Book Of Middle Eastern Food. She covers recipes from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and North Africa. She discusses the Muslim dietary laws and the etiquette of meals at the Arab table. She connects the cuisines of different parts of the Middle East to history and trade. The recipes in this book are not complicated and the ones I have tried are delicious. To cook Chicken With Preserved Lemons And Olives (page 218), all I had to do was cut up one onion and some garlic. I added cut-up chicken and spices, and let everything cook slowly. I did not have any preserved lemons in the house. An online search provided me with a great substitute: fresh lemon peels sautéed in olive oil. This book is a perfect resource for vegetarians and people who are sensitive to gluten. Claudia encourages us to personalize these recipes in order to please ourselves. She does not specify quantities of salt and pepper in her recipes because she believes that only we can decide when it is right for our palate. She encourages us to mix and match the different recipes, and to substitute beef for lamb, chicken for fish, or to make everything vegetarian. Her goal is for us to enjoy cooking and eating her recipes.
Her masterpiece is The Book Of Jewish Food, An Odyssey From Samarkand To New York, which took fifteen years to write. Roden explores the history of the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, explains the rules of Kashrut, and discusses the foods of the Ancient Hebrews. She teaches about the Jewish holidays and Shabbat. Roden discusses the culture clash that occurred when people from the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities “intermarried.” Being the product of a mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardic lineage myself, I chuckled with appreciation as I recognized all the tensions she describes. In my own family, grown men in their mid-sixties cower when asked the seemingly simple question, “Should we cook matza ball soup for the Seder?” They remember their childhoods, when the Ashkenazi side of the family would not eat rice at Passover (and still don’t), and the Sephardim would not eat matza balls. What did everyone get? Chicken soup with dry matza crumbled in it! To test the authenticity of Roden’s recipes, I looked up how to cook Bukharan rice. I am part Bukharan, and I wanted to see if she describes my great aunt’s technique. Impressively, on page 456, there is an anecdote about how to cook Bukharan rice in a linen bag, just as my relatives used to. Roden’s recipe for Bukharan Rice With Chicken And Carrots (page 457), cooked in a pot, is excellent. There is a very interesting description of the development of Israeli cuisine, with a discussion about how it was during their service in the Israeli Defense Forces that Israelis of different backgrounds first learned to cook each other’s foods. Even people who have no intentions of cooking will enjoy this book. There are many interesting chapters about the different Jewish communities of the world, and photographs of the people and places discussed.
Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to get any ingredient delivered to any location. Preserved lemons, orange blossom water, and tamarind are available at the tap of a keyboard. Claudia Roden has traveled extensively, participated in countless conversations, and cooked many permutations of each dish in order to bring us these marvelous cookbooks. The generation of my grandparents was the one of snobbishness and exclusion of the Jewish foods that did not come from their respective Ashkenazi or Sephardic traditions. Claudia Roden led the way to bridge these communities with The Book Of Jewish Food. I have always been curious about the foods and traditions of the Arab countries surrounding Israel. Claudia Roden’s New Book Of Middle Eastern Food is very instructive not only about the food, but also about how to make a positive impression if I ever happen to be a guest in Cairo or Istanbul. Ms. Roden is now working on a book about Spanish food. I hope she comes to the United States for a book tour. If she does, I will be the first in line to meet this fascinating lady, and have my book signed by her!