PAPER TRAIL

In 1968 Clau­dia Ro­den pub­lished A Book of Middle Eastern Food. The defin­ing 20th-cen­tury text on the culi­nary cul­ture of the re­gion, it in­spired cooks to em­brace cous­cous and tab­bouleh, seek out tahini and eg­g­plant, dive deep into hum­mus and per­fume their

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News -

Clau­dia Ro­den takes us back to when she first put pen to paper to craft the de­fin­i­tive A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Ihave a very clear mem­ory of when I first be­gan col­lect­ing the recipes that would later form the ba­sis of my first book, A Book of Middle Eastern Food. It was 1956, and the Jews were leav­ing Egypt in a hurry, en masse, after the Suez Cri­sis. I was an art stu­dent in Lon­don shar­ing a flat with my two broth­ers, and my par­ents ar­rived as refugees. We were in­un­dated by waves of rel­a­tives and friends on their way to new home­lands, not sure where they’d be able to stay. Ev­ery­one was ex­chang­ing recipes with a kind of des­per­a­tion. We might never see Egypt or each other again, but a dish would be some­thing to re­mem­ber each other by.

There had been no cook­books in Egypt. Recipes had been handed down in fam­i­lies. Some took out lit­tle note­books. I wrote ev­ery­thing down word for word – how much wa­ter to the vol­ume of rice, how and whether to salt eg­g­plant, how to know when the dough for pita was right (by feel­ing the lobe of my ear).

What I was col­lect­ing was a very mixed bag. They were not just Egyp­tian recipes. Egypt in my time, the time of King Farouk, and of Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser’s rev­o­lu­tion, had been a mixed cos­mopoli­tan so­ci­ety. There had been long-estab­lished com­mu­ni­ties of Syr­i­ans and Le­banese, Greeks, Ital­ians and Ar­me­ni­ans liv­ing among the Mus­lim and Copt pop­u­la­tion.

The royal fam­ily was an Ot­toman Al­ba­nian dy­nasty and the aris­toc­racy was Turk­ish. The Jewish com­mu­nity it­self was a mo­saic of fam­i­lies from Syria, Turkey, the Balkans, North

Africa, Greece, Iraq and Iran, at­tracted to what be­came the El Do­rado of the Middle East when the Suez Canal was built in the late 19th cen­tury. Ev­ery­one kept up their spe­cial dishes from their old home­lands. That is why I ended up cov­er­ing much of the Middle East and North Africa. A larger num­ber of the recipes were Syr­ian and Turk­ish be­cause three of my grand­par­ents came from Aleppo, and my ma­ter­nal grand­mother was from Is­tan­bul.

In Egypt, women would never have given me their fam­ily recipes, but in our new sit­u­a­tion it was im­por­tant and ur­gent to share them. They were what we loved, a joint legacy of our lost world. If we didn’t record them we would lose them for­ever.

In Egypt we were Euro­peanised – I spoke French at home and Ital­ian with our Slovene-Ital­ian nanny, and I went to the English School Cairo. But gen­er­a­tions of my fam­ily had lived for cen­turies in the Arab and Ot­toman worlds and it was their worlds, their loves and en­thu­si­asms, that fas­ci­nated me. I be­came an avid col­lec­tor of recipes and sto­ries. I hung around car­pet ware­houses, em­bassies, and tourist of­fices to meet peo­ple who could give me recipes. I also spent time read­ing up about the Middle East.

When I asked a li­brar­ian at the Bri­tish Li­brary for help in find­ing Arab cook­books, he wrote down a list of pub­li­ca­tions

– all were on me­dieval gas­tron­omy, there was noth­ing con­tem­po­rary. There were trans­la­tions of Ara­bic culi­nary man­u­als found in Bagh­dad, Da­m­as­cus and An­dalu­sia. For months I en­ter­tained friends with me­dieval ban­quets. Some me­dieval dishes had sim­i­lar names, sim­i­lar com­bi­na­tions of in­gre­di­ents and flavour­ings, and sim­i­lar tech­niques to those I had been hear­ing from peo­ple leav­ing Egypt. I was en­thralled.

I started look­ing for ref­er­ences to food in books about the Middle East. Stuffed vine leaves were first men­tioned in an­cient Per­sia, baklawa in Ot­toman times. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to find el­e­ments from an­cient Per­sia – meat cooked with fruit for in­stance – in cel­e­bra­tory dishes across the Middle East, es­pe­cially in North Africa. Read­ing his­tory made me un­der­stand why dishes ap­peared in cer­tain places. It was like put­ting the pieces of a puz­zle to­gether.

When I de­cided, after a few years, to turn what I col­lected into a book and told peo­ple, they said: “Why don’t you paint?” When I said it was about Middle Eastern food they looked em­bar­rassed, even pity­ing. One said “is it sheep’s eyes and tes­ti­cles?” In the ’50s and ’60s food was not the hot topic it is now. It was an em­bar­rass­ing, taboo sub­ject. And the

Middle East was hardly al­lur­ing. Much of it was what would be de­scribed later in Amer­ica as “the axis of evil”. I added bits of sto­ries as back­ground in the hope that peo­ple would want to try foods that came from a beau­ti­ful civ­i­liza­tion. It was of­ten im­pos­si­ble to find the in­gre­di­ents I was writ­ing about.

It’s amus­ing now to see how Middle Eastern food has been adopted and de­vel­oped in the new vi­brant food scene where cook­ing is glam­orous, chefs are ven­er­ated, cook­ing com­pe­ti­tions are among the most watched tele­vi­sion pro­grams, and eat­ing out is one of the most pop­u­lar leisure ac­tiv­i­ties. Le­banese, Turk­ish and Moroc­can dishes fea­ture in mod­ern Bri­tish menus. Home cooks make tagines and pi­lafs and know all about pome­gran­ate mo­lasses, harissa, za­htar, sumac and pre­served lemons. Hum­mus is to be found in the fridges of 41 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion here in the UK, where I live.

In our new global culi­nary cul­ture where chefs and food writ­ers are ex­pected to be in­no­va­tive and orig­i­nal, to do their own takes and tweaks, twists and in­ter­pre­ta­tions, Middle Eastern food is ever chang­ing and sub­ject to trends and fash­ions. While eth­nic restau­rants con­tinue with their stan­dard menus set in stone, eclec­tic chefs play with in­gre­di­ents and flavours. Some cre­ate fan­tas­tic dishes and these are in­stantly copied. But you also get con­fus­ing com­bi­na­tions, flavours that don’t go to­gether, a mish­mash that looks beau­ti­ful in pho­tos and on the plate, but doesn’t taste good. When peo­ple travel to the Middle East in search of the au­then­tic tra­di­tional cuisines they are some­times dis­ap­pointed not to find the stronger flavours and strik­ing com­bi­na­tions that have de­vel­oped at home.

One ex­am­ple is dukkah and the story is Australian. Decades ago I re­ceived a letter from Australia telling me that chefs and ar­ti­sanal producers were mak­ing their own ver­sions of my recipe. It gave me five dif­fer­ent recipes. Later, when I at­tended a fes­ti­val in Australia I had a photo taken with a group of producers who said they were in­spired by my recipe. Now dukkah has be­come a big ar­ti­sanal prod­uct in Bri­tain. Bri­tish and Amer­i­can chefs say they dis­cov­ered dukkah in Australia.

But when writ­ers have gone in search of dukkah in Egypt they didn’t find it, and no one knew what they meant. The rea­son is it is pro­nounced do’a. I got the spell­ing “dukkah”, a translit­er­a­tion of the clas­si­cal Ara­bic word “to pound”, from the 1860 edi­tion of Man­ners and Cus­toms of the Mod­ern Egyp­tians by Ed­ward Wil­liam Lane.

My recipe is one my mother got from Awad, our cook. It has only hazel­nuts, sesame, cumin and co­rian­der seeds. Now you find all kinds of com­bi­na­tions of seeds, nuts and spices sold as Egyp­tian dukkah. When I gave a sem­i­nar to the Egyp­tian Chefs As­so­ci­a­tion in Cairo a decade ago, I told them they should be serv­ing do’a in their restau­rants and pro­duc­ing it for ex­port. I told them that there were now many dif­fer­ent ver­sions sold in the West and that peo­ple there sprin­kled it on foods and rubbed it on chicken. They just laughed.

A 1973 Pen­guin re­print of A Book of Middle Eastern

Food by Clau­dia Ro­den, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1968 by Thomas Nel­son. This edi­tion sold for $2.10 at the time.

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