web analytics
Home » Food » In transit across Western Europe
In transit across Western Europe

In transit across Western Europe

Claudia Roden, in her early 80s now, has had several avatars — that of cookbook writer, teacher, TV presenter and even a foreign food correspondent. She began teaching cooking at home when she became a single mother of three and had to support her family. When her children left home, she decided to travel around the Mediterranean to research food. It was then that BBC heard of her travels and a TV series was shot. Books, columns, classes and awards soon followed. Claudia was recently in India to participate in the Jaipur Literature Festival. In an email interview, she talks about her tryst with food and collecting traditional recipes.

In transit across Western Europe

What are your earliest memories of food?

Entertaining was an important part of life in Egypt. We visited people constantly and, everywhere we went, we were offered food. Sometimes when we entertained, my mother would be joined by female relatives who came to help. They would sit around the dining room table and make little delicacies like stuffed vine leaves, filo triangles, and almond pastries; our cook, Awad, was helped by the relatives’ cooks to prepare the big dishes — the meats, vegetables and rice. I would be given little tasks like rolling almond balls and making little pastry rings.

In transit across Western Europe

What drew you to Middle Eastern food and having it at the centre of your work?

I started collecting recipes when the Jews were forced to leave Egypt due to the Suez Crisis in 1956. My parents arrived in London, where I was a student, leaving everything behind. For about 10 years we were inundated by waves of Jews from Egypt, exiles like us. People were exchanging recipes saying, ‘give me your recipe for so-and-so. I might never see you again. It will be something to remember you by’. There had been no cookbooks in Egypt and no printed recipes. These were handed down in families. I felt that the most important thing I could do was to collect what was an important part of our lives, which could be lost forever.

What I was collecting was a mixed bag because in my time, Egypt was a cosmopolitan country with many minorities, including Syrians, Armenians, Greeks, Italians and Jews living among the Muslim and Coptic population. The Jewish community itself was a mosaic of families from all over the old Ottoman lands and the Mediterranean. When people gave me recipes, they would say: “This is from my grandmother in Salonica, from Baghdad, from Fez.” Three of my grandparents were from Aleppo and my maternal grandmother was from Istanbul. That is why the recipes were from all over the Middle East, not just Egyptian. That experience started a fascination with food which led to what became a passion and way of life as well as a career in food.

To someone who is just discovering you and your work, what is the connect between Egypt and Jewish food?

The food of the Jews known as Sephardi and Mizrahi — from the Arab World and those originating in Spain — is quite varied. In Egypt, we adopted Egyptian food but it was a little different. For instance, we used oil for cooking instead of butter or clarified butter, because Jewish dietary laws do not allow you to mix meat and dairy. There were Jews in Egypt long before Islam. But the Jews who originated elsewhere continued to cook the dishes of previous homelands. A few dishes, such as the Sabbath dish ferik of chicken cooked in a pot with young wheat overnight, were uniquely Egyptian Jewish. And that is what my book encapsulates.

The Book of Jewish Food took you 16 years to complete.

I was asked by Penguin Books to write a book on Jewish food. They had one on Ashkenazi (Jews settled in Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe) cooking that was written during the Second World War and realised that there were other kinds of Jewish dishes in my Middle Eastern book. I first thought that it was an impossible task to track down Jews, who had mostly left their homelands. And when I told people I was researching Jewish food, most, especially Jews, usually said “there is no such thing” because Jews adopted the foods of the countries they were settled in. It took me 16 years to write the book. I was working on other things and different cuisines, and when travelling always gave myself time to find Jews. Their food was a kind of secret food that you could only know if you were invited in peoples’ homes.

What is the most far-fetched thing you have done for the right recipe or information?

In the beginning I wrote to Jews of Egypt who had migrated to far-off places: “I heard you make a wonderful so-and-so”. I wrote to a lady in Cochin, whose friend I’d met in London, “please send me any recipes”. She did and her name is in the Jewish book.

Most recipe books are notoriously known to not share recipes in their entirety, but not yours. What is your approach to recipe writing?

I write as I would describe the method to a friend, and as people have described their dishes to me. These days, recipe-writing has become more formulaic, with lots of timings and measures, but not enough explanations on how to tell when something is done or how it should be and taste, so that they learn to use their own sense and taste.

What kind of a cook are you? What do friends and family expect from you in the kitchen?

I’m calm and collected and always try new dishes on friends and family. That is what they expect. Even with friends, if I haven’t finished, they help. We always sit in the kitchen.

If you were to have sudden guests and had to cook an impromptu meal, what would it be?

I usually have ingredients in the fridge. It could be grilled cheese with salad, an egg dish, a pasta.

What’s next for you?

I am working on a new book on remembered Mediterranean dishes.


Source link

Go to Top