Claudia Roden finishes dinner at The Palomar with an espresso.
Born in Cairo in 1936, Claudia Roden may be the world’s most revered living cookery writer. Her books regularly appear in all-time best-of lists; the New Yorker made her the subject of an epic profile; historian Simon Schama called her Book of Jewish Food, “the richest and most sensual encyclopaedia of Jewish life ever set in print”, and her work wins book awards otherwise reserved for historians and anthropologists.
Peter Lyle is a writer and editor.
Peter Lyle Sorry it’s loud. I think my voice recorder should be up to it.
Claudia Roden I chose here because it’s a mix of Jewish foods – I can see the pickled herring is Ashkenazi, but then it’s with pistachio and flatbread. So a lot of it is Sephardi. Sephardi Jews are the Oriental Jews from Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, so what I can see from the menu is that they’re using recipes from all these cultures and sometimes using Ashkenazi ones. They’re the European Jews. Here, for example, there’s the word “Yiddish”, but on the whole, it’s Sephardi, like this Lebanese bread, for example. I’d like to try that.
PL I grew up in the East End and I had friends and neighbours whose grandparents had come over as Polish Jews.
CR But they were all going up to Golders Green…
PL They were going, but they weren’t all gone. There was still Bloom’s and Rinkoff’s and salt beef and all-night bagels and cheesecakes. I loved all that comfort stodge, but when you finally taste a matzo cracker after years of reading loving tributes to them, it’s pretty disappointing. I felt like in a lot of ways – the shalom/salaams, the skullcaps, the beards – the outward symbols of Islamic and Jewish culture seemed similar, but this Jewish food I knew didn’t have any relation to the spicy Indian and Bengali home-cooked food I’d eat, and I was confused by that. But when I got your Book of Jewish Food I finally realised that it does all connect up in the end – it’s just a long way around.
CR Because the Sephardi are all over the Mediterranean. This coming Friday I’m going to the Oxford Symposium on Food and the theme is offal. I’ve just written my piece for it and they’ve got the Tunisian tongue here that I described in my paper. But it’s quite different here – you see, they do it with yoghurt. In Tunisia, they do it with pickles or capers.
PL Look, there’s a whole offal plate here…
The Palomar “serves the food of modern day Jerusalem” – inspired by the rich and varied food of the Jewish diaspora, from Spain to Yemen and Eastern Europe. Roden wanted to try the restaurant because she knew one of its chefs from Jerusalem, where he had cooked for her.
The annual Oxford Symposiumon Food & Cookery was founded in 1981 by Alan Davidson and Theodore Zeldin.
CR “Jerusalem Mix”, yes. In Jerusalem they do it with all the parts of the chicken, but here I think there are sweetbreads, too. If you want we can choose the pork belly, but it won’t be very kosher.
PL There’s no way round that, is there?
CR And you see, here’s ras el hanout. There’s an interesting story I could tell you about pork in Spain. And then here there’s octopus. Octopus is not kosher. They can’t eat anything without scales.
PL Something a bit scaly comes off an octopus when you’re cleaning it.
CR Yes, but they don’t count them as scales. But then sweetbreads are wonderful… it depends on what you want. A lot of people at this conference on offal are going to talk about how they’re disgusted by it. When I was working on The Food of Spain I did cook a lot of pig trotters and ears, and I would always invite a lot of people over to try dishes. I served pigs’ ears, but they were cut into small pieces so they didn’t look like pigs’ ears. So I’d told everybody in advance that we were having pigs’ ears and they still came, but when it came to it they couldn’t bear to eat them. Then, of course, in a lot of Arab cooking, there are testicles.
PL “Lambs’ eggs!”
CR Yes, so I bought some of them. And I went and bought a whole lot because I thought maybe I wouldn’t find them again, I’d better buy a lot, and I wanted to try it many different ways: in a stew, on the grill, all kinds of ways of doing them. And then my children came in and they looked in the fridge. Anyhow, I served them to some friends on a day when they had just become vegetarian. And they just looked at them in shock. So I gave up on things like that because if you’re not going to eat them, what’s the point?
PL (To waitress) So can we have the mussels, the aubergine, the bread, the polenta, the lamb’s tongue and a Jerusalem Mix?
CR I looked up this restaurant before we came and I realised that when I was in Jerusalem in 2014, to get a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Jewish Film Festival, one of the chefs here had entertained me. There were three chefs who did this big dinner in Jerusalem – huge – for me, and they made it a Jerusalem menu, because Jerusalem was the world’s capital of stuffed things.
PL Stuffed things? Sweet, savoury, anything?
CR Yes, everything. In my books – the Jewish and the Middle Eastern – I’ve got many kinds of stuffed vegetables, every kind of stuffed vegetable, and also things like stuffed pigeon. They did that because my first book, the Book of Middle Eastern Food, was first published in Hebrew 45 years ago, soon after it was published in English. And it was the first book in Hebrew to have Arab dishes.
Elizabeth David was a cookery writer who in the 1950s steered British home cooks away from the mundanity of wartime food, directing them to use fresh ingredients to create Mediterranean and European cuisine.
That’s why they say it had an impact; it was taken up in all the kibbutzim, in all the places where they were cooking. A lot of the people who came from the Arab world usually arrived poor, and as soon as they came they began to grow up despising their own culture. The Arab culture was seen as backward; it was seen as the “enemy” culture. So they had to forget about that and they didn’t want to know. Their mothers might have done a couscous, but they didn’t really want to eat it. Somebody told me that when they went to school, the teachers would ask, “What do you eat at home?” To find out who they were. And one of them, an anthropologist or something said that everybody said, “Steakim and chipsim”. They felt that was the only thing that didn’t place them as coming from the wrong culture.
PL So that first book had its impact because people had lost touch with these foods they actually loved?
CR A lot of my first dishes in the first book had never been in print before. I started just by collecting recipes from the Jews who left Egypt. They left Egypt all of a sudden in 1956, after the Suez war. There were 80,000 Jews in Egypt and it was dramatic – some of them had only a week to leave and they left everything behind. A lot of them ended up in London, so I was already in London as an art student and I went to see them. People were staying in all kinds of unusual places – hostels, put up by the government. They had to decide where to stay; they became asylum seekers. A lot of them went to France, America, Latin America, all over the world, some of them stayed here. What people were doing by then was exchanging recipes, which they hadn’t done in Egypt.
PL They hadn’t wanted to share in Egypt? They’d hoard them and hide them?
CR Yes. You didn’t give away your family recipes.
PL But then people realised they had to be preserved by sharing them instead of guarding them?
CR When I was researching the Middle East, people would ask me, “What are you doing?” And I would say, “I’m collecting recipes”, and as soon as I said that people weren’t interested in talking to me. Because it was such a boring idea, they thought I was pathetic. Then they would ask me what kind of recipes I was collecting and when I replied that they were Middle Eastern, people would say, “Is it going to be eyeballs and testicles?” You know, because that was the idea of the Middle East, and people had a disgust of the Middle East at that time. And so I kept on; there’s a whole culture there, a whole world. But there was another reason. When I left I thought I was leaving forever. I thought I’d never see Egypt again, and I felt that I was losing my world forever. I didn’t really even know it then, because we were a very Europeanised generation – I went to an English school in Cairo and we spoke French at home and Italian with an Italian nanny. Everybody I knew was brought up by Italian nannies.
PL Can I ask about Elizabeth David? I thought I’d heard you say she was helpful to you when you started, but today I feel like she gets blamed for certain pretensions, for a loss of British food roots, for sun-dried tomatoes,
CR Elizabeth David wasn’t very sympathetic to others. Today, we are very much a community of food writers: we are friends, we help each other and we do things together. She never wanted to have anything to do with anything like that. She said – maybe she was right – that she thought people had to do their own work, their own research, and not go as a group. She always was a bit of a snob about food, though, quite strict, and there were things she didn’t like. She didn’t like chickpeas, for instance.
PL My mum had cookbooks by people like Jane Grigson and Jocasta Innes – books without photos, maybe some line drawings, but nothing that would date them too much and they are still so useful. It’s the same with Middle Eastern Food – the page on pickled lemons is still the best. Have you been ripped off by other writers and chefs though?
CR People do rip you off. There’s no copyright in recipes, but some people actually acknowledge where they found recipes and it’s nice of them to. I met Yotam Ottolenghi before he was huge, when he’d just opened his restaurant and we did a couple of talks together. He came to London as a journalist and photographer, and was learning French patisserie, but people started asking him how to make Middle Eastern dishes because of his background. He said that he always gave them my recipes, written out, without telling them they were by me. But then he said, “Now I tell them.” In Israel now, a lot of chefs say they learned from my books. Somebody is giving a paper at the Symposium about recipes as offal. It means they’re just rubbish, unconsidered texts that are thrown away.
PL Because cookbooks are not seen as part of literature.
CR Yes, and because there is no copyright at all, the recipes don’t belong to you, they belong to a country. Today there are a lot of people who invent recipes, so I wonder whether they can say those recipes belong to them.
PL But you must have frequently seen recipes of yours, uncredited?
CR Yes, especially if they spell it in the Jewish-Egyptian or the Egyptian colloquial way and say it’s from somewhere else. But I can always tell if it’s mine – everybody makes things a little bit differently.
PL You always seem to want to remind us how food is a social thing. Do you still entertain people a lot?
CR I do. Everybody comes to my house expecting something. But I find now, as you get older, that this intimacy and company of friends becomes very important. Especially if you live alone. So I have a lot of friends from the past, from different times, and they’re so glad that I just call them.
PL You talk about getting old, but before the beginning of my 30s, I realised that the best times of my life, the times when I thought, “I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be than here and now,” were with friends and during or after food. So I feel like these are the happy times, not the consolations in later life but the core. I liked the word that Anna Meroni of Polytechnic University of Milan used. She said that instead of fixating on nutrition, calories, superfoods, bad foods, we could think about “conviviality”. As a way of putting food back into a connected world, it seemed like a good way to put food back into its context.
CR I agree, it is. And now a lot people are using food as a way of building bridges, because of all the communities that are at war. I keep being asked to give talks about it. The latest ones are via the EU, as it
deals with immigrants, to get me to talk about this bridge-building because food is a way for immigrants to insinuate themselves into a new culture… Morocco, Turkey… Suddenly, the idea of food, of conviviality, seems to have become this way of making policies that deal with cultural conflicts and encourage integration.
PL It is interesting that offal now seems to be the preserve of the fancy kitchen.
CR Well, there’s nothing more nutritious, and done right it’s about the most rarified, indulgent thing you can eat: chicken livers, sweetbreads. Jacob Kennedy from Bocca di Lupo [restaurant], who is making a dinner at the Symposium, once cooked a whole pig’s head at a series of lunches he did for Inspector Montalbano, the television programme. Each lunch was around one of the stories and what was being eaten – I did one too. He served half the head cut open at the table and nobody wanted to eat it, so he ate the whole thing.
PL I don’t know how you eat a head. Obviously the cheeks are nice, but how do you eat it? Can you nibble meat off the whole skull?
CR Yes, and the brain is wonderful. If you cook it separately it’s even better. §
All illustrations by Isabella Cotier.