“I thought of every recipe, every technique, as the most precious thing I could have”
At the latest Food Blogger Connect conference there was one speaker who towered above the others and that was the intellectual doyenne of cooking, Claudia Roden. Now 79, her delivery was fluent and her content was entertain but at the same time significant and, very much to the point. Her stories are about immigration, and what accompanies displacement – a sense of rootlessness…loss…nostalgia. Nothing could be more current and pertinent. Why, in all the published food trends, is nothing said about the culinary effects of mass immigration into Europe?
Roden is one of a triumvirate of grandes dames writing on food at an academic level (the other two being Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson).
The effect of the Suez crisis
What a life! She begins her story describing how, following the Suez crisis, some 80,000 jews fled Egypt, and “suddenly the whole world was there with me in London”. Many had arrived without possessions and felt rootless and displaced. Familiar food represented a precious valued source of security, its scents and flavours supplying a reassuring home from home.
“People were asking each other for recipes” she recalls. “We were so excited when we found one particular book, written in Arabic, whose pages still needed to be cut. My father, who could read Arabic, began reading through. The first recipe was for macaroni cheese. It turned out to be a book left behind by the British Army for its arab cooks.”
Why Claudia Roden first began collecting recipes
“We felt the situation was desperate” she recalls, “I thought I might never go back to Egypt. So I thought, ‘this is something I should collect’” By recording the techniques and ingredients of the food of her homeland she was preserving and curating it for posterity. In hindsight not only has she achieved this ambitious objective, she has also broken through borders for the rest of us, and paved the way for today’s Ottolenghis and Tamimis. But in the fifties when Roden first started writing about middle eastern cuisine the response of British friends was often along the lines of “will it all be eyeballs and testicles?”
Roden explains that when she started her investigations there was no formal training for chefs and no cadre of food writers either, “in those days your family taught you how to cook”. This generation to generation passing down gave a deep emotional significance to the regular rituals of chopping and braising, rinsing and soaking, frying and freezing.
How she found the recipes
She became an obsessive collector, “I thought of every recipe, every technique, as the most precious thing I could have”. Some methods were prosaically described, ‘when the worked flour feels like the lobe of your ear, that’s it!’ Terrier-like she would track down, whether to Brazil or Bali, people whose name was always mentioned coupled with a particular dish – they were accepted as the unofficial authority on the. As she says in the introduction to A Book of Middle Eastern Food, the book which rose like a phoenix from the ashes of dispossession:
“It has been, for me, a matter of great delight to acquire an extra recipe from some relative passing through London; or a well-known ex-restaurateur from Alexandria; or somebody’s aunt in Buenos Aires – another treasure to pass on to the Middle Eastern community in Paris, Geneva or Milan.”
What to call her first book?
She considered a book on Egyptian cooking but this was like capturing a piece of mercury. “When I was growing up there Egypt was very cosmopolitan” she remembers. “The Egyptian community was like a mosaic, it was the El Dorado of the trading world, people came from everywhere”.
In any case Roden didn’t want to restrict herself to Jewish cuisine – there were Muslims, Christians and Copts also in Egypt and they ate good and interesting things too. The cuisines of the religions of The Book had inter-influenced, had produced fusion dishes. She would visit carpet warehouses, not to buy carpets but to meet other Egyptians of all persuasions – “I want to meet your wives” she would petition. At the Iranian embassy it was the same – “Are you here for a visa?” she would be asked when in fact it was the others in the queue she had come to find.
Researching in the British Museum
There were so many questions and their answers so broad. Where did authentic baklava come from? Roden found recipes originating from Iran, from Turkey and from Syria. Her investigations took her to the British Library where she searched and found there were no contemporary middle eastern cookbooks there, no books to supply information or explanation. The following day she returned, this time inspecting thirteenth century culinary and historical manuscripts. She found another scholar examining the same documents and teamed up with him, benefiting from his different perspective and scholarly background to unravel the calligraphy of an ancient script from Damascus. The recipes it contained informed on a whole society which became her colleague’s PhD subject. Roden was excited to find that contemporary cooking in Damascus had changed very little.
Why she turned her attention to Spain
Years later she turned her attention to Spain, to thirteenth century Andalucia. This area too was part of a very old civilisation and was also a melting pot, another mosaic of different cultures and religions. Cooking doesn’t only bind communities and give identity. It can also provide international links, significant and healing points of commonality. Roden finds delight in the way that food can reveal connections. “Empires can be reached across, there are echoes from one part of the Mediterranean to the other”. In Spain she found again the vine leaves originally recorded in Persia.
“It was like putting together the pieces of a puzzle and that interested me” she explains. “I love collecting the recipes and trying to make sense of them in a sociological sense. They are full of emotional baggage. Just an aroma can summon up a whole civilisation. For me, the concept has been couched perfectly by the Catalan writer, Josep Pla who said that ‘cooking is landscape in a saucepan’”
The influence of the web
The web provides an invaluable resource, but it also represents a threat to the development of roots and identity.
She gives an example. “Until the 60s in Italy there was a share cropping system in operation where half the crop was given to the landlord in rent. The independent Italian states were proud of their own culture, their own food: they would run down the cheese from the next door province in comparison to their own superior produce. It’s not like that any more. And nobody learns how to cook from their mother any more either – another factor reinforcing differences – now they learn from the internet.”
The future of cookery writing
So Roden concludes by saying that the tide is now, once again, turning. It may be that today everything is innovation and invention (Spain, she comments, is where it’s all happening now). Food fashions ebb and flow regularly – avocado in one year, falafel the next. Nevertheless, Roden argues that underneath it all people “still want memories, or to evoke emotions”. She has seen that people are hungering for tradition, Victorian sponge puddings or their grandmother’s pasta. Roots and family provide an important foundation.
“Don’t throw away culture” she urges, “it’s who we are, it’s our identity.”
This post is dedicated to Alessandra Spairani, who supplied the photographs.