Claudia Roden was born In Egypt. In the 1950s, she moved to London to study, where her family soon joined her after the Egyptian government expelled French and British nationals and Jews in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis of 1956. While working at Alitalia Airlines, Roden began to collect recipes from relatives and friends who had recently left Egypt. Over a period of 50 years, she published 15 books on a range of cuisines — looking at everything from what people’s ancestors ate to how to serve coffee to what they prepared for picnics. In the late 1980s, Roden began hosting television cookery programs, including Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery for BBC television. I spoke to her about her career in food writing, how she approaches her research, and what she thinks about Persian cuisine.
How did you become interested in food writing?
I began collecting recipes more than 50 years ago, in the late 1950s in London, where I had come to study art. In 1956, after the first crisis, when the Jews were forced to leave Egypt, we became refugees. For many years we were inundated by waves of relatives and friends coming out of Egypt and passing through London. There had been 80,000 Jews in Egypt. Everyone was exchanging recipes with a kind of desperation.
There had been no cookbooks in Egypt, since recipes were passed down through families, so I decided to collect recipes — and what I was collecting was a very mixed bag. That was why I called my first book “A New Book of Middle Eastern Food [originally called A Book of Middle Eastern Food], because Egypt in my time was a very mixed and cosmopolitan society: There were long-established communities of Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Italians and Armenians, as well as French and British expatriates. All of us were living among Muslims and also the Coptic population. The Jewish community I was part of was a mosaic of people from Syria, Turkey, the Balkans, North Africa, Greece, Iraq and Iran. We tried to get books from Egypt, asking people if they could send any cookery books. The only one that came was a translation from an English book published during the war by the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes [NAAFI].
I decided to go to the British Library to see if I could find any Arab cookbooks, but I could not find anything contemporary. Everything was on medieval Arab gastronomy. I realized that many of the recipes had similar names, flavorings and combinations of ingredients to the recipes that people were giving me. So I understood that food was not just something that one did at a certain period, but that it was part of the past. I started looking for references. For instance, stuffed vine leaves were first mentioned in Ancient Persia, or baklava was first mentioned in the Ottoman times. I found elements from Ancient Persia, like meat cooked with fruit, for instance, and sauces made with almonds and sweet and sour flavors in the grand cuisine of the Middle East, and especially in North Africa. So I read a lot about history and how dishes had appeared and traveled. It was just like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.
I was recording our culture and heritage, which we had lost by having to leave Egypt — and we were extremely attached to it. They were not just recipes. I realized that food was an important part of a culture, and that it was about roots and identity and that was why people have always held on to it. There was a story behind every cuisine. I often quoted a Catalan writer called Josep Pla. He said that cooking is landscape in a saucepan.
When I actually decided to write a book and talked about it with people, I was told, “Why don’t you paint?” At that time food cookery was considered to be a very low form of literature and culture, and talking about food was a taboo subject in the UK. People were even embarrassed about it. I felt that I really had to put in folk tales, proverbs, poems and anecdotes so that people would know that food was part of a civilization. I would talk to people on every occasion and in every place. For example, I would go to an Iraqi carpet warehouse. When I was asked if I needed a carpet, I would answer no, I wanted to know about their recipes; I would go to the Iranian embassy and when I was asked if I needed a visa, I would answer that I was looking for recipes.
How did you carry out your research when you traveled?
I would get a few contacts in a place and then they would pass me on to other people. Usually I met with women. At that time there was not much restaurant food, especially around the Mediterranean. It was people cooking at home, so I went from one home to another, meeting with people. But also, I would ask people I met on a bench or at a coffee shop or on a train. I would go back home and do more research about the country – its culture and history, its geography — to understand the background of the food and to try out the recipes.
When a BBC TV director asked me if I would be involved in a television series on Mediterranean cookery, I used all the contacts I had made over the past years. After that, the Sunday Times Magazine asked me to do a series on the regional foods of Italy. It took me a year to research. I brought out a new updated and enlarged edition of The Food of Italy in 2014.
One of my biggest projects was The Book of Jewish Food. It took me 16 years to write. It is the story of Jewish communities around the world – a story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. Jewish food is a food of people without a land. Their dishes are those they carried from one homeland to another.
Another country I researched was Spain. It was a very fantastic experience to see that, with all the innovations in science and technology going on, people still passionately valued their own regional cuisines. Spanish cuisine is extraordinarily complex: Every region, province and village had its own version of a dish. I saw how food was part of the Spanish identity. The Catalans have been trying for years for UNESCO to recognize a list of their recipes as part of the World Intangible Heritage, but Spain is trying to stop them.
Can you tell us a bit about Persian Cuisine and how it differs from other Middle Eastern cuisines?
I realized that the Persian influence was the oldest influence in the region. The Persian Empire was the oldest empire [dating from 500 BC]. During the era of the Sassanid Empire in the 7th century, the culture blossomed. The book L’Iran sous les Sassanides by Arthur Christensen [a Danish orientalist and scholar of Iranian philology and folklore] mentions several dishes that spread through the Islamic empire to the four corners of that empire and all the way to Asia, North Africa, Spain and Sicily. I found dishes for instance in Catalonia that are very Iranian in style — I found a recipe for an apple stuffed with minced meat, fried onion, raisons and pine nuts, and meats cooked with other fruit.
I was a guest in Iranian homes in London and found the cuisine very delicate and refined: The rice dishes, the stews, the use of berries and herbs and ground almonds. Persian food is more delicate than the cuisines of other Middle Eastern countries. But I found in Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Moroccan, Tunisian and also Jewish cuisines elements that are similar to Persian cuisine.