Just when you think the UK food scene is full to bursting with Middle Eastern-themed writers and chefs, bakers and recipe-makers, that’s when you notice the enduring presence of a loved and long established veteran: Claudia Roden. Titles from her assorted back catalogue still turn up in bookstore display windows, and lately she’s been doing London TEDx talks about her adventures in food writing.
Earlier this year, BBC Radio 4 serialised her ground-breaking Book of Middle Eastern Food, first published in 1968 (which also made the Observer Food Monthly’s classic cookbooks list last year). This summer saw her handing out a SOAS university honorary doctorate to the acclaimed novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Roden had already delivered the Centenary lecture at the university in February 2017).
It’s hardly surprising that Roden would be so popular in the midst of our national fixation with the food of Middle East – popularised by writers including Yotam Ottolenghi and Anisa Helou and restaurants including Moro and Honey and Co. After all, Roden is the original – the pioneer everyone else cites as their source of inspiration. When we talk at her north London home, over slices of the delicious fluffy yoghurt cake for which, happily, she has given Jewish Quarterly the recipe, she says: “For a while I could see all the new books coming out where the writer would say, ‘You’re my bible. I’ve learned everything from you.’ Or a lot of people, young people, tell me: ‘My mother has got your book.’” Having spent years carefully collecting, measuring and testing the traditional recipes for her ubiquitously lauded Book of Middle Eastern Food (my copy is well worn and has moved with me across continents), Roden is entirely at ease with the modern fusion approach of currently popular food writing.
“People do their own take now – that’s how it is and that’s fine,” she says. “That’s how we’ve moved as a culture now. There’s no reason why people in England should do traditional [Middle Eastern] dishes exactly as they were. Why should they? The whole thing of spices has become very big and strong flavours, too. I can see from my grandchildren. They want Aleppo pepper, they want to put harissa in their yoghurt.” The trend, she adds, is liberating: “It does make me feel free. Because before I was recording recipes exactly word for word, not anything more. I measured and re-measured…”