Someone once told Claudia Roden that she couldn’t write about Jewish food because there was no such thing. Her response, in 1999’s The Book of Jewish Food, was to declare that, “because a culture is complex does not mean it does not exist”. This phrase could sum up Roden’s extraordinary life’s work. For more than five decades she has devoted herself to the task of piecing together complex food cultures and proving that they not only exist, they must also be shared. It’s largely thanks to her that ingredients such as tahini and couscous have become British staples. To appreciate how much we owe Claudia Roden, consider the fact that when she was writing her first masterpiece, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, in the 1960s, she was told by many British people that she would have nothing to write about because Middle Eastern food was all “sheep’s eyes and testicles”.Claudia Roden: our greatest food writer - video
We are all, to some degree, eating in Roden’s world. Around 15 years ago, her grandson, Cesar, told her that he had just been to a glamorous deli in Belgravia that seemed to be selling food similar to hers. He’d grown up eating his grandmother’s garlic- and cumin-scented cuisine which she made for family and friends in her low-tech kitchen in Hampstead Garden Suburb. But now here were apparently familiar dishes presented as if they were haute cuisine, arranged on exquisite plates. Cesar saw echoes of his grandmother’s aubergines with tahini, her fried cauliflower, her platters of bulgur wheat and stuffed vine leaves, her herb salads and her moist, flourless cakes. The deli turned out to be one of the first branches of Ottolenghi. When Roden met Yotam Ottolenghi for the first time, at a charity event, he confided that her books were his most cherished bedside reading. We now speak of the “Ottolenghi effect” to describe the popularity in the UK and beyond of Middle Eastern ingredients such as pomegranate molasses and za’atar. But, as Ottolenghi himself has always generously admitted, Roden’s influence on his food is hard to miss.
To return to her early books is to see that she was fiercely ahead of her time. When she was first writing, she had to explain to her audience that hummus was a “tahina salad” with a “rich, earthy” aroma and the consistency of “a creamy mayonnaise”.
Over dinner at Rovi, another of Ottolenghi’s restaurants, she tells me that if her father were alive today, he wouldn’t have believed hummus is now so beloved by the British. Of that very first book from 1968, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, which took more than 15 years to complete, she says, “I never thought anyone else would want to know.” Roden has just celebrated her 83rd birthday (her grandchildren cooked for her) and after all this time is not remotely jaded. Everything we order is greeted with delight. A grilled spring onion reminds her of a similar dish she ate 30 years ago in Barcelona.
The amuse-bouche of spiced butter beans with a dab of aioli, which arrives with our glasses of prosecco, reminds us both of the Egyptian ful medames – brown beans with olive oil, lemon and a hard boiled egg – she describes at the start of A Book of Middle Eastern Food. Roden began collecting recipes when she was at boarding school in Paris in 1953, desperately homesick for Cairo. She would meet up with other Egyptians every Sunday to eat these beans, as a shared ritual of exile.
I do look things up online, but I have to say, a lot of the food on the internet is from my books
Recipes, she says, come with “emotional baggage”. She started collecting them in earnest while living as part of a refugee community of Jewish Egyptians in London following the Suez crisis in 1956. The sharing of recipes was how refugees hung on to their old life. People would give them to each other and say, “Remember me.” Roden’s parents – Cesar and Nelly Douek – had been forced to flee their comfortable house on a tree-lined street in Cairo when Nasser expelled Egypt’s Jews. They left their old life behind and settled in London with Claudia and her brothers.
When her parents arrived, Claudia was already studying at St Martin’s School of Art. Science was her first choice but her parents felt art was more respectable for a woman. Instead, the meticulous scholarship of her books was her way of living the serious life devoted to research that she had initially been denied. As Simon Schama famously wrote, Roden is a “memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet – who just happens to communicate through … taste.” Writing, she recalls, was also a kind of freedom, a way of travelling the world as a single woman after bringing up her three children alone following her divorce from businessman Paul Roden.Claudia Roden photographed for OFM at her home in north London in 2012 Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer
It’s possible to miss the fact that Roden is a deeply political writer. Her larger purpose, she tells me, has been to make the case that the Middle East “was a great culture”. She wanted to show that, although its history is “tragic, intricate and tumultuous”, as she says in A Book of Middle Eastern Food, there has been a continuous line of edible civilisation running all the way from biblical times to the present. In the times of the pharaohs, tomb paintings suggest Egyptians were already eating molokhia soup, made from a glutinous green leaf, which is eaten in Egypt to this day.
To Roden, this is more than an academic argument. When she started writing about the Middle East in the 60s, she was uncomfortably aware that many in the UK had “a disgust for the people and for the culture”. Sometimes people would mock Middle Eastern food to her face. Her beloved ful medames were “foul”, apparently. In the Middle East, “If two people have eaten together,” writes Roden, “they are compelled to treat each other well.” Part of what she is doing with her work, I feel, is urging us to treat each other better.
I ask her which of her books she is most proud of. She says it’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food: “I was the first and it mattered.” Right from the beginning she felt a recipe was a way of recording authentic memories. This was why she went about the process in such a slow and laborious manner. All over the Mediterranean, she would arrive in a city and “accost people”, asking them for their favourite recipe. In London if she had done this, she says, people would have thought, “This lady is mad”, but found in most other places people were only too eager to talk. She spoke to strangers on trains and interviewed the elderly in old people’s homes. Each recipe she acquired felt like a “treasure” because it belonged to a particular culture, often one which people had been wrenched away from. “I had to tell these stories,” she says. Stories such as the origins of the meat pies from Salonika in Greece described in The Book of Jewish Food. Salonika had one of the largest Sephardic Jewish communities in the Mediterranean, which was destroyed by the Nazis. Roden’s recipe is a relic from a lost city.
Few others have ever taken so seriously the idea of a recipe as heritage and her legacy extends far beyond the cookbook shelf. A couple of years ago, she was giving a talk at the Jewish Museum in New York and someone in the audience pointed out that if she were writing her Jewish book today, she could have spared herself the bother and found it all on the internet. The memory makes Roden smile wryly as she sips her prosecco. She does occasionally look things up online, she tells me: “But I have to say, a lot of the food on the internet is from my books.”