Cairo-born Claudia Roden’s first cookbook, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, published in 1968, was described by James Beard as a “landmark in the field of cookery.” Four books and many awards later, Roden in 1996 published A Book of Jewish Food, which critics praised as “masterful,” “stunning” and “invaluable.” Roden, who lives in London, is presently at work on a book about Spanish cuisine. She recently returned from Spain to talk with Moment’s Abe Opincar…
Following The Book of Jewish Food’s publication in English, were you criticized for including more Sephardi than Ashkenazi recipes?
I’m often accused of giving more space to Sephardi cooking. It’s because Ashkenazi food is basically one culture with some differences. But, on the whole, the basis is the same. Sephardi food is extremely varied. In India, for example, there are four communities, all with unique foods. Even among Jews who came from Spain, there are important regional trends. You see this among the Sephardi Jews of Turkey, where there are differences between the Jewish cooking of Ismir and the Jewish cooking of Istanbul. And as we learn more about other communities, like the Jews of Afghanistan or the Jews of Sarajevo, the story grows more complex.
Have you come across anything that surprises you about Jewish cooking?
In Goa, I found Jewish dishes from Syria and Iraq that were mixed with Indian and Portuguese traditions! As it turned out, they were influenced by Jews from Portugal who arrived during the Inquisition. I have learned that for every recipe there are sometimes two or three cultures that have come together to create it.
Do you have any favorite Jewish recipes?
When my children and I get together, I always make an orange and almond cake and a chocolate cake. Both recipes were in the family and both are in A Book of Middle Eastern Food. The chocolate cake originally came from Portuguese conversos who started chocolate industries in Italy, France and Holland.
What do you like to cook for yourself?
Unfortunately, I don’t have time to cook just what I feel like. I’m always on to the next thing. Nowadays, I’m always trying out Spanish dishes. Before that, I was trying out recipes for my last book, Arabesque. It is quite funny, actually, how that book came about. When my publishers and I were first discussing the project, they wanted three or four countries to focus on. So we settled on Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey. I said, “How about Iran? Iran has some wonderful recipes.” And they said, “Iran? No, no, no! Not Iran!” Ever since I’ve been joking with my friends that my next book should be The Axis of Evil Cookbook.