December 2006

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Claudia Roden

Many cookbooks are now works of art. They cost upwards of $50 with glossy photographs, beautiful design, and a famous chef's handsome face bending over steaming pots. They're not books you want to lay on your counter, spill oil on, and actually cook from. They're meant to be read while eating pizza delivery. But Claudia Roden's cookbooks are different. Her most famous books, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food -- which singlehandedly introduced the cuisine to home cooks around the world -- and The Food of Italy, contain a handful of pictures, and cram recipes into every available space. They're not much to look at, which is fine, because soon the spines will be broken, the pages will stick together with pomegranate syrup, and you'll be producing flawless dishes of traditional recipes.

Roden is not just a cookbook writer, she is an oral historian. She travels from house to house in the region she is researching and asks for their favorite recipes. The stories about how she came across certain dishes is just as entertaining as eating the food. Her latest cookbook Arabesque may look a little fancier, but the stories and the quality of the recipes are the same. We met at Roden's hotel during her Arabesque book tour for a cup of coffee to discuss how she started her career in food.

Are you doing a tour for Arabesque, or are you just in town for this Nextbook event?

Yes, I’m doing a tour.

When you do a reading tour, I mean, you write cookbooks. Do you just talk about the books?

I don’t read, I just tell them stories. The thing is I did ask them if they wanted me to do a lecture about all of the Jewish foods and they said they’d rather I talk about how I came to write about food and my experiences. I’ve had a long time of experiences, so there’s a lot to say. In a way, you want to bring insight to things, but at the same time it’s entertainment.

What was the genesis of Arabesque?

Because I had been researching the Middle East and North Africa, since maybe 45 years, even 50 I should say, because just now it’s the anniversary of the Suez Crisis, where the Jews had to leave Egypt. I had already left, but used to go back. I had gone to school in Paris, studying art in London. But suddenly everyone left in a very big way. Over the next few years, somehow all of Egypt’s refugees came out through London and I just realized how people were thinking of food a lot and asking for recipes. Whereas in Egypt they wouldn’t have given them so freely. The thing was that in Egypt we were a huge Jewish community. Not so much huge as varied. It was like here now a mosaic of Jews from mainly the Middle East, Ottoman Empire, North Africa. We weren’t just an Egyptian community. In my family, a few of grandparents came from Syria, and my father was conceived in Syria and arrived in Egypt. One of my grandmothers was from Turkey, from Istanbul. Our food wasn’t particularly just Egyptian. We did absorb Egyptian things, but we were wider culturally. The Egyptians, too, were cosmopolitan. It was cosmopolitan in one way that there were French and English ex-patriots and Italians, but there were also Arabs from all over. It was like the El Dorado of the East at the time. It’s far from it now, but at the time it attracted people from everywhere. In a way, it was the reason why once I started collecting recipes they were from not just from Egypt. People ask me why I don’t do a book on Egyptian food, but this is what we were. We were a mixed community in a mixed country.

For me, then, I started asking everyone for recipes. People would say, there’s this one over there or this woman is in American now who has this recipe that I’d love for you to find. I started writing letters all over the world for recipes. At the time there were no cookbooks at all in Egypt. Now we’re awash with recipe books. At the time, they didn’t exist in Syria, two in Turkish. One in Morocco by a French woman. It really was something that was a big, important challenge. I did think at the time we didn’t have Jewish dishes. There were a few, but otherwise we were collecting Muslim. We had written all over Egypt saying, “Have you any books?” The only book we got was a huge paperback and when my father started looking at it, it was in Arabic, it was a book translated from the English that was left behind by the British army dealing with food. Everything inside was roly-poly, cauliflower cheese. Nothing local at all.

That sounds horrible.

Yes, yes. Anyway, that’s why I started. I continued for years to keep getting recipes because everybody I met said, “I’ve got another recipe for you.” Also, I went on traveling there. At least when my children grew up. I would go to write about it as a journalist and also invited to do conferences. It just was what you’d call my path for a long, long time. More recently my publishers said, “We want you to do a book that is for a new generation who likes less recipes, more photographs. But also can we choose the best cuisines?” I decided this time instead of putting all the recipes together, we’d divide the book into the three that I chose. I chose these three because they are the very best. I must say that I also suggested Syria and Iran, because they are also the best. They said, “No, no, no. We can’t have them.” Maybe my next book will be The Cooking of the Axis of Evil.

Did they really not want the cuisines in there because of political reasons?

Yes. Although we have Iranian restaurants and a lot of Iranians -- London is full of people from Iraq, Kurdistan, Morocco -- they just thought nobody would buy the book, just for commercial reasons.

I had always gone back for events and so on, and really find out a lot more recipes that I didn’t know before. New versions of recipes that are classics. And also to see how they’re cooking now. They have changed enormously the way they’re cooking. When I started researching they didn’t have ovens. They used to deep fry… even in my family one aunt didn’t have an oven. They had a huge house with a courtyard, and they cooked in the courtyard. She had a huge house because her married children came to live there. It was like an old Arab house in Egypt. She would send her big things to the public oven. Otherwise it was quicker to deep fry things. Now when I went back, well, everyone has an oven. 

How do you go about collecting the recipes? The thing that comes through in your cookbooks is that everything is very, um, cookable… like when a restaurant comes out with a book and you can’t actually make anything in it. The recipes in your books can actually be made.

Yes, it has nothing to do with restaurants. I do sometimes get recipes from restaurants, but just because I’ve eaten something good and I’ll ask them how it is. But my whole work has always been home cooks. Apart from loving to eat and loving to cook, it’s for me a way of discovering the world and meeting people. Somehow this thing of going to people’s kitchens is for me very precious for finding out things. And then having to go home and get it right. Usually you don’t get a correct recipe. People forget something. And they’re also not used to writing it down. You have to make sure that it works, and that’s your job.

I do try to get some contacts in the country. I don’t go with nothing at all. In some countries, like Italy, I went to every region and almost every city. There I didn’t have contacts everywhere. I met all the regional chefs at the conference in Venice, and I had their contacts. Then I met people who were part of the national association of food lovers. They were not chefs, just people who loved food. Chefs are only interested in themselves. What I’m looking for is traditional recipes. I’m traveling around Spain now.

With Lebanon, because my family was from Syria, it was very familiar. It was what I knew. I realized how many, many different dishes there are that you don’t know. The restaurant trade in Turkey and Lebanon is very limited. They have a standard menu that you find no matter where you go. If you go to people’s homes, there’s incredible variety. It’s a tiny country, but it has many communities. Now we know all about the Shiites, the Jews, the Greek Orthodox, the Sunnis. They’re all different, but they all inhabit the mountains. There are also Armenians there. Until the ‘60s there was no transport. The people stayed in the mountains. They don’t communicate that much. They go on doing their special dishes. The mountains aren’t poor. Usually the people in the mountains are poor because they can’t have cows easily. In Lebanon, the mountains can be very rich because there are great families who are now the heads of communities. In the case of where I went particularly this time, oh I’m forgetting the name of the city, but I think it’s were mezze was born. Lebanon was the capital of the food of the Arab world. Even if you go to Saudi Arabia, at the hotel it’s Lebanese food.

In that particular area, it’s a Christian village. So that’s where they make wine. It started with the priests making wine, and convents, and monks. And arak, which is this strong alcoholic spirit that has the taste of anise. Because people came to buy arak, they started serving little bits of food so that people could drink more. They started that and gradually there were hundreds of little cafes along the river. My father used to go there and tell us about the 40 different mezzes they had. They took all the village foods and made them into a mezze. When I was there two years ago, it was incredible that they had kept up the tradition of the mezze.

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Suez Crisis, correct? Did your entire family leave during that time?

Some stayed. In fact, one uncle stayed because although he was nationalized -- there was a revolution in Egypt before the Suez, a lot of people who had factories or businesses were nationalized, Jews as well as Muslims, but Muslims had to also divide their land between their relatives. That uncle was nationalized. He had a big warehouse in the marketplace, and he was a wholesaler. He wouldn’t go because he wanted to run his business, so he stayed on for another not quite ten years.

All the Jews who didn’t have Egyptian passports had to leave within days and they could only take 50 pounds with them. Those who had Egyptian passports could stay, but they were harassed. A lot of them were taken into internment camps. The internment camps turned out to be not bad. Many of the people came out very quickly, others stayed and some told me, “It was the best time in my life. I met people I never would have met and we had a laugh.” In the same camp they had also put communists and Muslims, so it was a strange situation. People told me how they were able to have food brought in by their relatives, but they called it the Tennis Club. You could play tennis and play ping pong and at that time the wardens were people from villages who hadn’t been prison wardens. It all happened so quickly that they didn’t know how to deal with these people who were people they had always respected and all of a sudden now they were in prison for a political reason. Egypt was attacked, but the Jews had not been involved, not the Jews of Egypt. The top notch were there, the richest Jews were there, the poorest Jews were there, and it was a mixed thing that people got to meet others that they never would have met. I feel that one day I want to research and interview as many people as I can about what went on in those places.

Afterwards, the prisons were terrible, and certainly after the Six Day War there were some terrible things. One of my cousins, she was a communist, and she was found to be a spy, and she was interned. She had a terrible time. When she left she went to Israel, she could never adjust. Emotionally she was very broken. I can’t say that that situation lasted, but still the idea of going into a camp was so frightening. Everyone who could, left.

And you say you didn’t go back that often?

I didn’t go back until thirty years after, twenty years ago. I went to write about Egypt for Sunday Times and I went with a photographer and I spent a whole month. I interviewed lots of people to see how things had changed. It was for me very moving because all of our people had gone, and it was very strange because we lived in a quarter on an island in Cairo. It was residential and all of my relatives had been there. I looked up in the windows, imagining I would see them. It was sad, in a way. We missed each other. But we had done a lot better by being away. Even the people who lived in Jewish quarter of Cairo, which was a poor, poor quarter, lived on charity of the rich community. They all went to Israel, and they became lawyers, doctors. For them, it was the best thing to have left Egypt. For us, we had at the time had a wonderful life. At least, that’s the way I see it. I wasn’t there when it turned sour. I don’t have the bitterness some of my cousins had. People turned against them. I didn’t see that so I don’t feel those feelings.