Friday, July 17, 2015

Claudia Roden, hummus queen of north London

Make hummus, not war! Is Claudia Roden's watchword. The Egyptian-Jewish cookery writer, profiled in The Financial Times,  is responsible for launching exotic ingredients on to the British market. It is a pity she repeats the Palestinian claim that Israel stole their land,  food and cuisine, without also insisting that Jews in the Middle East have been eating hummus for centuries, and that she is a dispossessed refugee from Egypt.

Claudia Roden: 'food opens doors' (photo: The Guardian)

As a young Egyptian Jew in London, Claudia Roden could not have foreseen that she would help kick-start the British nation’s love affair with hummus.

Roden’s family fled to the UK during the 1956 Suez Crisis when the Jews were expelled from Egypt, leaving behind their fortune and their home. After just over a decade of banishment Roden published her opus A Book of Middle Eastern Food.
The doyenne of culinary writing, and mother of three, is credited with introducing such foreign and then unknown delights as tahini and falafel, sumac and tabbouleh, cumin and cardamom to the staid English dining table.
Born in 1936 to an old Syrian-Jewish merchant family, Roden grew up among the leafy streets and 19th-century villas of Zamalek island in central Cairo.
While guttural Arabic was the language of the people, Roden spoke French, Italian and English at home. Her grandmother talked soothingly to her in Ladino, the tongue of the Sephardic Jews driven from Spain in 1492.

We meet on a blustery London day and Roden dishes up an impromptu lunch of warming pumpkin soup, scallops and seared salmon in her Hampstead Garden home. She speaks of the “mosaic” of Cairene Jews: her family hailed from Istanbul and Aleppo, where her great-grandfather Haham Abraham ha Cohen Douek fathered 26 children).
“It was a time of tolerance,” Roden insists. “I remember a time of great happiness and not a cloud. Well, suddenly things go wrong.”
Roden was sent to Paris aged 15 for school and later to London’s St Martin’s School of Art. After her parents were drummed out of their homeland they joined her in the UK. Suddenly destitute, she quit studying to work. Three years later she married Paul Roden, a clothes importer of Russian descent.
“It was traumatic to think we would never go back and we would lose everybody,” she says. “We were a community, a very big extended family. We thought everybody was a relative in Cairo and Alexandria.”
Making matters worse was “the horror of the food!” recoils Rod
en. “Macaroni cheese and fish in a white sauce. Everything looked beige: pale, creamy beige — there was no colour. Hardly any tomatoes, hardly any peppers, no aubergine.”
Friends and family dropped by on the way to new lives scattered across the globe. Cuisine, once prepared by chefs, became central to the banished who exchanged recipes saying: “I’ll give you this cake so you remember me.”
Roden started to jot down dishes. Into her cookbook — lovingly bolstered by folk tales, rituals, and a record of a recipe’s roots — went her grandmother’s pies stuffed with eggplant and spinach and ful medames, a street food of puréed brown beans.
After nine years of research, Roden published A Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1968, just one year after the six-day war. Familiarising a sceptical public with strange ingredients from a conflict-ridden region was no easy task.
“When I wrote aubergine, I explained they were baby marrows. I can’t believe that now!” she exclaims. “I would say pitta bread is ‘bread with a pouch’.”
Now pushing her eighth decade, Roden lives where she has always lived: in Hampstead, north London, close by communities of Orthodox Jews and African and Middle Eastern immigrants. Her home — where she raised her children on her own following her divorce — is a rambling 1906 Arts and Crafts house.
There is a wild unkempt garden and a cosy kitchen decked with Portuguese tiles and a chunky wooden table where, after lunch, she serves Earl Grey tea with biscuits from Marks and Spencer.
Over the years Roden claims many supermarkets have based their recipes — stuffed vine leaves or cheese filo triangles — on Roden’s dozens of cookbooks. In the 1960s “you couldn’t buy filo pastry or couscous”. As her debut work became a bestseller the supermarkets “started asking me what they should stock — gradually they even had harissa”.
Today Roden is not precious about her concoctions, such as her celebrated orange and almond cake, since adapted by chefs such as Nigella Lawson. Roden reasons: “It wasn’t originally mine — it was actually my sister-in-law’s grandma’s. So you can’t appropriate a recipe.”
If anything, Roden chaffs against a “culture demanding creativity and innovation — that every chef has to make his own mark”. By contrast she wants to connect with the past.
“You can follow the route of a dish. I could know where somebody came from, even which town, by their version of a dish,” says Roden, adding, somewhat wistfully: “Or I could. Now everything is mixed up.”
With her almond eyes, tan skin, and whiff of exoticism, people often ask Roden if she feels British. “And they think I should because I’ve been here for more than 55 years. But I am international and so is London. So I belong here better than anywhere else.” Still, Roden “feels Egyptian of the Egypt that was. It’s not the same any more.”
Last year, the writer contributed dishes to London’s inaugural pop-up Conflict Kitchen alongside the Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Breaking bread together was proffered as a way of breaching cultural divides (it does not always work; last November Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen had to temporarily close after receiving threats).
Roden, though, is adamant about the power of food to appease, appearing in the 2012 documentary Make Hummus Not War. Over the years this seemingly innocuous concoction of mashed chickpeas has had significant bite — and become a symbol for cultural combat in the Middle East. Adopted by the Israelis in the 1950s as a national dish, many Arabic countries counter it as their own.
“The thing is there is now a lot of anger — where Palestinians feel that the Jews have not only stolen their land but their food, their cuisine, their culture,” says Roden. Yet in the Middle East, where Roden still travels, amid Islam’s “culture of hospitality”, “food opens doors”.
She confides: “It’s wonderful to be going into their kitchens: kitchens are a place of intimacy where they open up and tell you things that they wouldn’t in their living room.”
Back in her own kitchen, Roden is extolling the virtues of molokhia, green leaves mixed with chicken, rabbit or duck into a thick soup. The chef admits that molokhia’s glutinous, slippery texture can be off-putting for outsiders.
But it “makes me and all the exiles go aahhh — you know, very, very excited and nostalgic. Oh, I adore it!” she exclaims, raising her hands to the heavens. “I go crazy for it. At the last minute they fry crushed coriander and garlic — and this is the smell of Egypt.”

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