I had been cooking for only a few years when, in 1972, a friend gave me “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” by a woman named Claudia Roden. In my cooking life, there was no more important influence than that book.
Roden rose to prominence later than Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, the two grandes dames of mid-20th-century cooking in Britain. (David and Grigson helped Britons “fix” a cuisine that had gone horribly wrong because of war and the accompanying hardships.) But when Roden published “Middle Eastern Food” in 1968, she built on their influence, expanding — almost exploding — the vision of what was possible. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say there was effectively no hummus or tabbouleh before then. And suddenly there were not only those, but also rosewater, meat cooked with dates and phyllo dough.
The reason for Roden’s broader view is simple: She was born in Cairo to a family of Syrian Jews, left for school in Paris when she was 15 and was reunited with her parents and siblings in London, when the Suez crisis of 1956 chased the Jewish community out of Egypt. Her first book was inspired by the food of her childhood. Her research ultimately led her to write extensively about the foods of North Africa, Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Her “Book of Jewish Food” is the most comprehensive work on the subject and, unlike many books on the topic, gives equal weight to the cooking of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.
I wanted to cook with Roden for years, and finally, on a recent visit to London, I was invited to her home to do so. What to cook with someone who awes you?
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