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How we discovered Middle Eastern Food

"It is the fruit of nostalgic longing for, and delighted savouring of, food that was the constant joy of life in a world so different from the Western one." Claudia Roden

You might think it's all down to Yotam Ottolenghi and all those other currently well-known Middle-Eastern chefs who started the Western love affair with hummus et al. But no it was this lady - a lady who at the age of 85 is still writing cookery books. No - more than cookery books - historical, ethnographic, anthropological treatises on Middle-Eastern food. Well they would be treatises if they weren't so entertaining and enlightening as well and if they didn't include such wonderful recipes.

It's first recipe day and today the book is A Book of Middle-Eastern Food, the first edition of which was published by Thomas Nelson in 1968, but whose 1970 Penguin edition was gifted to me by David at Christmas 1971 with the words - A year of Middle-Eastern food for 1972. I don't know whether he got his wish although I do know that I have cooked a very large number of recipes from it.

According to the back cover of mine there are over 500 recipes in this book. And it's only a small paperback. No glossy double-paged spreads of photographs here. Just a few line drawings here and there and densely packed recipes. Which doesn't mean that these are not interspersed with pages of research, personal stories and quotes from Arabic manuscripts, poetry, proverbs and so on. The Introduction to the book alone is 30 pages long. I confess I skimmed some of it today and every now and then it does get a bit learned, but it is also illuminating. And all for a mere $2.10 in Australia back in 1971.

"Beyond the evocative stories and buoyant style, beyond the comprehensive list of dishes and unfailing set of instructions – there is always information, hard information, meticulously collected, compellingly assembled, lovingly told. It is these reliable and interconnected facts – covering history, geography and ethnography – that draw me to all of her work. I can rely on them as references in my own writing and they never fail to inspire me to create." Yotam Ottolenghi

She is more learned than Elizabeth David perhaps, although she too, especially in her later books could become quite scholarly. Jane Grigson perhaps matches her with the breadth of historical and cultural knowledge that is included in her books, but not in quite such a scholarly way. So when you read A Book of Middle-Eastern Food, indeed any of her books, you get a whole lot more than a recipe.

"she deepened the conversation around food to address questions of culture, context, history and identity." Paul Levy

So, boring then? Occasionally I suppose, but you can easily skip if you want to, although you will be missing out on a whole lot of knowledge - but you still get the recipes:

"a genre of works that is at once literary and deeply researched while still being, at heart, practical manuals on how to make delicious meals." Paul Levy

All of her books, up to and including her latest - Med - which I have yet to buy - and I will - are deeply connected to her own past.

Claudia Roden grew up in Cairo - the child of a Sephardic Jewish family which was centuries ago, from Syria. French was her first language - apparently the language of Egyptian Jews - which is interesting as she has never really tackled French cuisine although she has produced books on both Spanish and Italian food. French is just mentioned here and there. With Nassar came exile - first to Paris - and eventually to England, although she has travelled widely just about everywhere by now. But it's that childhood in Cairo that resonates.

“Wherever she is, she tries to recreate the Egypt of her childhood. She’s held it very clearly in her head for all these years, and it comes across in her writing. Reading Claudia is like going somewhere.” Diana Henry

"Friday night dinners at my parents, and gatherings of friends at my own home have been opportunities to rejoice in our food and to summon the ghosts of the past." Claudia Roden

She is not the first, of course, to introduce the Western world to the glory that is Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern food. I guess that honour goes to Elizabeth David, although I do believe Robert Carrier, too should get more credit than he does. But they only offered a recipe or two. Jane Grigson is a little younger, and did not do much on Middle-Eastern food. But all of those three are long dead. Claudia Roden is of a younger generation that includes Madhur Jaffrey, Delia, Ruth Rogers, Marcella Hazan and heaps of others. And although Claudia Roden has written massive tomes on Spanish and Jewish food, and a lesser one on Italian food, it is introducing us to Middle-Eastern food which is her major contribution to our food knowledge.

"It has been the birthplace of our present civilisation, and the battle-ground of most of the creeds, philosophies and religions which for the basis of those now occupying the minds of much of the world today." Claudia Roden

Today Middle-Eastern food is commonplace - a quick look at the index of the current Coles Magazine revealed at least six Middle-Eastern influenced recipes. You can now get sumac, filo pastry, hummus, za'atar, couscous and burghul in your local supermarket. Chick peas are commonplace, as is Pita bread - a home brand product on your supermarket shelves. I have no doubt that virtually all of us have eaten Tabbouleh, Dolmades, Couscous, Falafel, and that fabulous orange cake that now bears her name at some time or another. Claudia Roden must take a vast amount of the credit for this.

In her introduction and scattered throughout the text she stresses the traditions that accompany each recipe. Once again we get the conflict between 'authenticity' and innovation. However, although Claudia Roden will tell you the tradition she will also encourage you to experiment because, of course, this is what all cooks do.

"It's virtues are loyalty and respect for custom and tradition, reflected in the unwavering attachment to the dishes of the past. Many have been cooked for centuries, from the time they were evolved, basically unchanged.

Yet each cook feels that within the boundaries of tradition she can improvise. She can pit her artfulness and wits, her sensuous feeling for the food, its texture and aroma, to create a unique and exquisite dish with the imprint of her own individual taste." Claudie Roden

"I would like to suggest that after the initial 'trying out' of a new recipe, the reader should trust his taste and allow himself greater freedom in its preparation" Claudia Roden

And Yotam Ottolenghi and his ilk have of course run with that idea.

So what is the first recipe in this wonderful book? Well there are two in a way.

The actual first recipe is A bowl of fresh herbs - two examples of which are given below.

I know I have written about this before so let me simply say that it is a wonderful way to begin a Middle-Eastern meal. At it's simplest it is just what it says it is - a basket of fresh herbs. More likely though the basket will also include some or all of: pita bread, cheese, nuts, spring onions, cucumber or radishes. In her introduction to the recipe we get a little bit of social legend:

"An ancient custom is for women to eat the herbs with bread and cheese at the end of a meal. According to an old belief, this will help them to keep their husband away from a rival."

And after the recipe: "Persian saying: 'Even the worm inside a stone eats herbs.'"

However, in an interview in recent times, Claudia Roden explains that it all began with Ful medames:

The collection began fifteen years ago with a recipe for Ful medames. I was a schoolgirl in Paris then. Every Sunday I was invited together with my brothers and a cousin to eat Ful medames with some relatives. This meal became a ritual. Considered in Egypt to be a poor man's dish, in Paris the little brown beans became invested with all the glories and warmth of Cairo, our home town, and the embodiment of all that for which were homesick.

Silently, we ate the beans, whole and firm at first; then we squashed them with our forks and combined their floury texture and slightly dull, earthy taste with the acid tang of lemon, mellowed by the olive oil; finally, we crumbled the egg, matching its earthiness with that of the beans, its pale warm yellow with their dull brown." Claudia Roden

In spite of this deeply nostalgic memory she does not mention it in her introduction to the dish in her book, concentrating instead on its history - it goes back to the Pharaohs. Ful medames are brown fava beans. Fava beans - the most commonly known variety here is broad beans - are ancient. Indeed they are the only beans known in the Old world. And they come in different sizes and colours. The dish we are talking about here is very simple - simply boiled brown fava beans, to which is added crushed garlic. Guests add lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to their own taste, with the whole being topped with parsley and hard-boiled eggs.

On the next page are those dolmades that I have made many times, although not so much in recent times. You need a lot of people to feed them to. And they are a bit fiddly, although as she says in her introduction:

"Some of the dishes, such as stuffed vine leaves, may take some time to prepare; but if you consider cooking to be a pleasurable and creative activity, you are adding to the enjoyment of serving and eating the dish the peace and pleasure drive from rolling up the leaves. Women in the West like to knit while watching television, or while sitting with their children. Could rolling vine leaves and stuffing tomatoes not be yet another such soothing activity.?"

To which I say, yes indeed it is, and how satisfying to hand around these delicious morsels to your friends and family.

A truly wonderful book which has seen many years of regular use. I must go and buy her new one.

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