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
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.