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…”
We have all come a very long way from the food culture into which she started writing Middle Eastern Food. At that time, as she recalls, there were none of the now plentiful Lebanese restaurants, much less the ingredients central to this cuisine. People would describe this cooking as “ethnic food” and assume, says Roden, that her cookbook “was going to be all eyeballs and testicles”.
Claudia Roden, nee Douek, was born in 1936, in Cairo, Egypt, with grandparents from Syria and Turkey – and all of these nations influenced the flavours at the family table. Egypt’s national backstroke swimming champion at the age of 15, she went to a boarding school in Paris 1953, which is when her food odyssey began. As she narrates in Middle Eastern Food, she and her brothers would go to eat ful medames, the Egyptian national dish, at a relative’s house and thus the connections between food and identity, family, home and belonging became hardwired for the homesick children.
Roden moved to London to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art. Her parents joined her in 1956, when Egypt’s Jewish population was forced to leave with about two weeks’ notice following the Suez crisis. And that’s when she started collecting recipes, talking to the exodus of Egyptian Jews arriving in London for years to follow.
“I was asking all the people who came out of Egypt, that’s how it started,” she says. “They were so intent on giving me their recipes, because that is something that they had, that they were able to take with them. There hadn’t been any cookbooks [of these recipes], nothing had been printed anywhere. Nobody even thought those recipes were Jewish at that time, except they said, ‘This is what we had at Passover’ or ‘This is a New Year’s thing.” What was striking, she recalls now, was the sense of a strong attachment to the cuisine. “It’s how they identified themselves,” she says, adding that this is when she realised that she had to collect and collate these stories and recipes, in order to preserve something that might otherwise be lost.
She married Paul Roden – a clothes importer from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants – in 1959. “I had a deep desire to have children even from the age of 15,” she says. “I was so used to having a large family and I wanted to recreate something of the family life we knew in Egypt, which was a happy one.” They divorced 15 years later – by which point they had three children. But back during the early days of their marriage, Roden’s first and most famous cookbook project took a life of its own, as she decided to expand into other cuisines of the Middle East, researching, tasting, testing, reading – sometimes delving into historical Arabic writings to extract traditional recipes. Writing for the Observer Food Monthly’s classic cookbooks list last year, Yotam Ottolenghi describes the landmark book which emerged from all that painstaking study: “Beyond the evocative stories and buoyant style, beyond the comprehensive list of dishes and unfailing set of instructions – there is always information, hard information, meticulously collected, compellingly assembled, lovingly told. It is these reliable and interconnected facts – covering history, geography and ethnography – that draw me to all of her work. I can rely on them as references in my own writing and they never fail to inspire me to create.”
Roden put out an update, the New Book of Middle Eastern Food, as well as a coffee book and a picnic book during the ’70s and ’80s, a time also spent raising a family as a single parent. Then came her next big book project. “It was as soon as my children left home,” she says. “They all left on the same day, two of them to New York and one of them to university in Manchester. I decided, the day they leave I would leave. Actually it was one or two days later.” She travelled to Turkey and Italy, and then more widely – gathering recipes for Mediterranean Cookery and the Food of Italy.
“To research food was interesting and exciting, it opened doors,” she says. “I would go and say ‘I’m a food writer from England’ – nobody believed I was English – they were fascinated and glad someone was researching their food.” Roden says she always felt at home on her travels, recalling a saying that if you are from one part of the Mediterranean, you are never a stranger to its shores. “I did actually feel more at home in the Mediterranean than in England to be honest – England at that time was very English. And the English Jews… we did feel the bond of Jewishness obviously, but the way they ate and shopped and lived… we were different. I felt there was a humour and way of life and a sympathy in the Mediterranean. I just felt I was coming home rather than going to a strange world – it was like looking for home, looking for all the things I loved about the Middle East.”
This, she says, became her way of life, to travel independently and to research recipes. “I’d meet people on a train and tell them I was researching food and they’d say ‘Come and have lunch at my house’ and so I’d just go,” she says. “Or I’d tell people: ‘I’m writing about the cuisine of your place, your region. Can you tell me what’s your favourite recipe or dish?’ In several countries people do want to tell – here they wouldn’t: if I asked someone on a train here, they might think I was crazy! But people want to say what they like, what they’ve eaten. I remember, when I asked the one person, several people would often gather round to tell me the recipe. They’d say: ‘Excuse me, that’s not how I make it.’ And then there would be a crowd. It would be a fun thing, because food is always pleasant.”
Next came another food bible, The Book of Jewish Food, first published in 1997. This work did much to alert people to the idea that Jewish food was not just Ashkenazi food – until then, says Roden, she would come across people who had no idea that Egyptian Jews would eat anything other than Eastern European Jewish dishes. This encyclopaedic tome also involved plenty of travel for research. “Once I started looking at the subject, I continued for 16 years,” she says. “People kept telling me the book was going to be posthumous!” As with the Mediterranean book, Roden’s research was in pursuit of the stories as much as the recipes themselves. “When I travelled, for instance to Italy, I would go to the synagogues and ask where I could meet people. And people would say: ‘The women who go and cook in the old people’s home, they cook Jewish foods. They come for Shabbat.’” And so she’d go and talk to them. You get the sense that this is where Roden is happiest and in her element: off on research trails that lead to more people, each with their own recipes bound up in memories, emotions, associations – bound up, in other words, in life.
Although she still travels for conferences and similar events – and is still clearly in demand – Roden is now working on a book that allows her to stay at home.
“I wanted to do something that’s a challenge – and for me the challenge is to do fantastically delicious food,” she says. “In the past my aim was to discover a cuisine, collect all the recipes – I wasn’t looking for the best tasting, most exciting, most wonderful.” Now she is. She is going over decades of recipes, gravitating around the Mediterranean, finessing the best possible version of a selection of favourites for an illustrated collection.
“The recipes will have been tried many times,” she says. “Just yesterday I rejected three recipes that we slaved over. I have a rule that, unless something is fantastic, it shouldn’t be labour intensive.” The book, she says, is taking shape over dinners, in the process of inviting people to come over and taste her creations. “I like trying. I like cooking,” she says. “Every dish brings me back to something that happened – and a lot has happened over the 30 years when I went everywhere. The smells and tastes conjure up scenes, people who were in my life, people whom I’ve known. The food has a power, the power of evoking.”