Half a century ago, just at the close of the Six-Day War, Claudia Roden finished a manuscript she’d been working on for 15 years. It was an opus of recipes sourced from immigrants of the Middle East who, like her, were living overseas. Back then, she lived in London with her parents, two Syrian Jewish merchants who had been exiled from the Cairo home where they raised her. Though Roden was far from the epicenter of the Six-Day War, it was a time when merely existing as a Middle Eastern person in the West felt, by her own admission, “not at all popular.” To sing the glories of Middle Eastern cuisine was vaguely heretical.
This manuscript would turn into 1968’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food, the cookbook that single-handedly made Roden a star. For it, she was anointed the maven of Middle Eastern cooking. Roden’s career as a cookbook author spans over half a century, and though she has written ten books on a wide array of culinary subjects, from Jewish food to Spanish food, the Middle East’s foodways have continually been the focus of her work. A Book of Middle Eastern Food reads like a memoir: unerringly sincere, probing, filled with longing. It’s the voice of a woman who misses home.
Roden is now 81. When we spoke this past Sunday, she was sitting in her cottage located in London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb. I asked her about what it took to write a book that stands, 50 years later, as a referential text for the generations who have followed her. Last month, Yotam Ottolenghi argued once again for the book’s vitality, even as the Western world’s understanding of Middle Eastern food has become more granular.
From today’s vantage point, the signifier “Middle Eastern cuisine” sounds distressingly vague. But Roden codifies it with a book that asks us to embrace these intricacies, to grasp how its cuisines have deepened and matured due to patterns of migration, how they have withstood attempts at destruction. Roden anchors the book in her own, deeply personal ache, one that her fellow immigrants share. In the book’s opening pages, she explains that it “is the fruit of the nostalgic longings for, and delighted savouring of, a food that was the constant joy of life in a world so different from the Western one.” Every page is soaked with a memory of what has been lost, with the hope that it can be salvaged. Consider this book an act of self-preservation: She had known these foods her whole life, and she didn’t want to forget how they tasted.
MAYUKH SEN: You are of two families, the Doueks and the Sassons. Your father’s family, the Doueks, was from Aleppo, no?
CLAUDIA RODEN: Both the Doueks and the Sassoons were from Aleppo. They came to Egypt at the end of the 19th century, when the building of the Suez Canal destroyed the great trade routes that passed through Aleppo. Egypt became the trading El Dorado of the Middle East. They lived in the newly built district of Sakakini, which was inhabited almost entirely by Syrian Jews. Later, they moved to Zamalek in Cairo, where I was raised. The Doueks, in particular, kept up a strong Aleppan identity through their cuisine.
MS: And what about your mother and her family?
CR: My maternal grandmother Eugenie Alphandary, who married Isaac Sassoon, was from Istanbul. Although she had gone to university in Paris, she spoke with her friends a Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino. So their dishes had Turkish- and Spanish-sounding names.
MS: What do you remember growing up eating?
CR: We were a huge extended family. Many of my childhood memories are of celebrations at long tables and of sitting in a large family circle and being served mezzes or coffee and syrups with pastries. I grew up with kibbeh, tabboule, baba ghanouj, humous, megadarra, konafa, ma’amoul, as well as dishes that originated in medieval Spain. Along with French and Italian food. We had a cook called Awad who came from a village in upper Egypt and learnt to cook our dishes from my mother. Our nanny, Maria Koron, came from a village in Slovenia that was then part of Italy. When we were small, she cooked for us, too.
MS: What did Maria cook for you?
CR: My Slovenian nanny cooked Italian-type food. Her village was near the Italian border. I remember simple pastas, a herb omelette, and zabaglione with milk, which we had for breakfast every morning. When we were older and the cook was away in his village she made things like polenta and potizza.
A few years ago, I received an email from a Slovenian woman. She belonged to an association of women trying to find out about their grandmothers who went to work in Egypt as a nannies and wet nurses. These women had seen a recipe of mine for potizza with my nanny’s name. Since the late 19th century, it was usual for every peasant family to be supported by one of their women who went to Egypt and sent back money. This had been a taboo subject in Slovenia until very recently, when it suddenly became the big story that captivated everybody. They invited me to speak at a festival of Egypt. Maria’s family came to hear me, and I went to see them in the village. They gave me potizza as well as their home-made salami and wine to take back to London.
When she turned 15, Roden and her two brothers left Cairo for a Parisian boarding school. It was 1953. While studying there, the siblings would travel every Sunday to a relative’s house in the city, where they ate ful medames, a soggy purée of brown beans that she knew as street food.
Back home, she thought the dish was nothing special. But in this context, this food assumed the status of a delicacy. Whenever she had it, the memories tunneled through her, and she pined for the taste of Cairo. These flavors were now strewn with, in her own words from A Book of Middle Eastern Food, “all the glories and warmth of Cairo, our home town, and the embodiment of all that for which we were homesick.”
Roden relegated visits to Cairo to summers when school was no longer in session. With time, her visits grew even less frequent. She decided to enroll at St Martin’s College in London, where she studied painting. Roden aspired to mimic Diego Rivera’s career, wanting to become a muralist of his skill. School afforded more freedom than home did; she flirted with Marxism and became a member of the New Left.
But she found it difficult to acclimate to London for a simple reason. The food she ate at school was distressingly greige. She could barely stomach meals of false creams and cauliflower with curdled cheese. In the absence of the Cairo she once took for granted, any traces of its food she could find were not only better in comparison: They were a lifeline home.
MS: How much do you miss Cairo these days? Do you consider it home?
CR: I missed Egypt terribly for many years but I can’t say I miss it now. I don’t consider it home. But I love the country and I feel happy there, like a fish in its natural waters. A sight, a smell, a taste, a sound, a word, the air, the sky—they trigger long forgotten memories of a happy childhood.
MS: How often do you go back to visit?
CR: I went back after thirty years and then several more times, usually to write about the food or the country.
MS: When you visit these days, what do you eat there?
CR: The food in Egypt was mostly the same as when I left but two dishes were new to me, like om ali, a creamy bread pudding with almonds, pistachios, and raisins; and koshari, a mix of lentils, rice, and short macaroni with caramelized onions along with a peppery tomato sauce. Falafel, called ta’ameya in Cairo, is made with broad beans. It is the best in the world. Last time, I ate a lot of melokheya, a green leaf soup flavoured with crushed garlic and coriander fried in olive oil. I also had baby pigeons that were grilled and stuffed with freekeh, called ferik in Egypt, or rice.
MS: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I want to say that you’ve spoken before about seeing a recipe for melokheya in an Elizabeth David book shortly after you came to London. If that’s right, what kind of imprint did David’s work have on yours, especially since you encountered her so early on?
CR: Elizabeth David’s The Book of Mediterranean Food was the first cookbook I ever bought. I couldn’t believe I could find melokheya in a book. I was very taken by the engagingly evocative way she wrote at a time when writing about food was unglamorous and looked down on. Until then, I had been collecting recipes for us, to preserve our heritage, and not thinking of publication. Reading her encouraged me to put it all in a book and I went on and on researching. Jane Grigson’s writings in the Observer were also a major inspiration to write about what she called the “background” of food, too.
It was 1956, the thick of the Suez Crisis, when Gamel Abdel Nasser assumed power and forcibly expelled all Jews from the country. Roden’s parents arrived in London without much in the way of personal belongings. They sought refuge in the company of fellow displaced persons, looking to weekly shared meals with refugees as a way to repair what circumstance had splintered.
Every Friday, as refugees gathered at her family’s flat, Roden would ask everyone for their recipes and jot them down on small scraps of paper. She sublimated her yearning for home into this project. This crowd-sourcing would form the foundation of her first book.
The economic dire straits Roden encountered during this time forced her to leave art school and take a job at the Piccadilly office of Italian air carrier Alitalia. Her parents desperately wanted to marry her off, as they feared that she, barely 20, was destined for spinsterhood. Her parents introduced her to potential suitors, from a rich cousin with a yacht to a horrifically unattractive businessman from India. She refused both men. Instead, she was bewitched a handsome, spry clothes importer, Paul Roden, whom she married in 1959. He himself was the son of two Russian-Jewish immigrants to the United Kingdom. It was during her marriage when Roden truly taught herself to cook.
MS: A Book of Middle Eastern Food is, effectively, a book about yearning for home, and finding it again through food.
CR: Yes. I started collecting recipes when the Jews were forced to leave Egypt in 1956 after the Suez Crisis. I was an art student in London and my parents arrived suddenly as refugees. We were inundated by relatives and friends from Egypt passing through. Everyone talked about the foods they missed, and they exchanged recipes with a kind of desperation. We might never see Egypt or each other again, but we would have something to remember each other by. There had been no cookbooks, no printed recipes. Recipes had been handed down in families.
MS: What kinds of recipes were you collecting?
CR: A very mixed bag. Egypt had been a multicultural cosmopolitan society in the cities. There were long-established communities of Syrians and Lebanese, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, and Italians, as well as French and British expatriates living among the native Muslim and Copt populations. The royal family was an Ottoman Albanian dynasty. The aristocracy was Turkish. The Jewish community was a mosaic of people from Syria, Turkey, the Balkans, North Africa, Greece, Iraq, and Iran. That is why I ended up covering much of the Middle East, and also North Africa, in the book.
MS: You say there were no cookbooks when it comes to Middle Eastern food. But were there any other specific cookbooks, or authors, you looked to for inspiration as you wrote that book?
CR: When I asked a librarian at the British Library for any Arab cookbooks, he told me to come back next day when he would have found something for me. There was nothing contemporary.
But he gave me a hand-written list of publications on medieval Arab gastronomy. One was a 1939 translation of a 13th century culinary manual found in Baghdad, another was an analysis of a culinary manuscript of the same period found in Damascus by the French Marxist-Orientalist Maxime Rodinson when he was stranded there with the French army during the Second World War. There was also a Spanish translation from the Arabic of a Maghrebi-Andalusian culinary manuscript. I was enthralled. I started entertaining friends by inviting them to medieval banquets. Many of the dishes had similar names, similar combinations of ingredients and spices, and similar techniques to those I was about hearing from people leaving Egypt. That is how I first became interested in the history and culture of food. I did eventually find books about Middle Eastern and North African food as well as of the cuisines of countries around the Mediterranean, though. And I now have a big collection.
Upon completion, Roden’s 480-page manuscript muscled its way to the hands of a Turkish editor working at a small publishing house in the United Kingdom. It was a bigger hit than expected. This was due in no small part to its perceived novelty. No Middle Eastern author had written such an extensive guide to Middle Eastern food before, especially for this particular audience, who embraced it as an accessible, exhaustive window to an “exotic” cuisine they hadn’t known much about before, any potentially threatening elements removed.
As word of the book spread, it eventually came to the attention of an editor at Penguin, Jill Norman, who published the book in paperback in the United Kingdom. Judith Jones, the Knopf editor who was essentially Norman’s American equal, noticed the book, too. In 1972, it was released to uproarious praise in the States.
In this period, though, Roden’s marriage collapsed before her. She suddenly found herself a single mother with two daughters and a son. Roden has described this moment in her life as initially terrifying, but it became one of creative liberation. When her three children left home three decades ago, all at the same time, she decided to leave, too. She vowed to travel around the Mediterranean in search of food, or, as she describes it to me, she “went alone a l’aventure.”
She has never stopped traveling and foraging for new material. Right now, she is working on a new Mediterranean cookbook; the book, when she sees it to fruition, will be her eleventh. The region may be big, but when she looks inward, she feels it is knowable.
MS: I’ve noticed, in a few interviews, that you’ve admitted that you feel like a fraud when it comes to being an expert on Middle Eastern cuisine. Why have you sometimes felt that way? Especially when you are looked to as an authority figure on Middle Eastern cuisines?
CR: I felt like an imposter early on, half a century ago, when I was seen as an authority, because I was not a professional cook and I got most of the recipes from people, usually by chance. I kept wanting to say, That isn’t the only way to make this dish. Others might make it differently.
MS: You have said that “food is a way that an immigrant community insinuates its culture in a new homeland, especially as street food.”
CR: Yes. What I mean when I say this is that there is always a demand for food. It is during the Lebanese Civil War which lasted 15 years that Lebanese restaurants opened in great numbers around the world. Nowadays, it is also through cookbooks that an immigrant culture is adopted in a new homeland.
MS: How has this philosophy regarding immigrant communities, and what food provides for them beyond sustenance, proven true for your own life?
CR: In the sixties, when I told people that I was working on a book of Middle Eastern food, some would ask “Is it going to be testicles and eyeballs?” Friends said, “Why don’t you paint?” But soon supermarkets were asking me what to stock. I said couscous, bulgur, haloumi, chickpeas, filo, and so on. They used my recipes for their chilled dishes. Now, chefs tell me that they use my book, and the likes of pomegranate molasses, tehina, harissa, za’atar and dukkah are part of the new eclectic “modern English” cuisine.
MS: I’ve spoken to a number of chefs of Middle Eastern origin since Trump’s election and Brexit. A good number of them seem hopeful that this climate of hostility they’ve encountered will, somehow, increase people’s awareness of food from their ancestral homelands. Do you share this optimism?
CR: To immigrants, food is a link with the past, that part of their culture that survives the longest, passed on from one generation to another. It is kept up when clothing, language and music have been dropped. When the environment is hostile to their foreignness, they might turn to the cooking of their roots for comfort. Chefs might find that their special foods will be popular in a country that loves something new.
MS: You have also said that you’re sheepish about declaring yourself “Egyptian” or “British” or “French.”
CR: I’m often asked if I feel Egyptian, British or French.
MS: How do you see yourself?
CR: I’m a British citizen and love and value Britain, but French is my mother tongue. I have a flat in Paris and feel at home and happy there, while Egypt is part of who I am. I guess I should define myself as a cosmopolitan with multiple identities, including that of a Jew from the Arab world who feels part of an international community.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, the expanded version of her 1968 cookbook, is available here.