Sunday, April 15, 2018

A New Book of Middle Eastern Food - Claudia Roden

My sister gave me this for my birthday in 2000, I think I already had Roden's book (another Penguin paperback) on Mediterranean Cooking, and might have had her wonderful region by region guide to Italian food as well (which very usefully talked about wine too). Neither of them have been as well used as 'A New Book of Middle Eastern Food'. Her 'Picnics' book is another favourite - and again, thinking about these books is taking me right back to the shop I bought them from and reminding me how much I miss it.

Reading Claudia Roden was another lightbulb moment. I know I asked my sister for this book, it's how we do presents - asking each other for small things we want but can't quite justify buying. The price of cookbooks have remained remarkably static over the last few decades, so in real terms they're a whole lot cheaper now than they were then. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. On the upside it means these books are much more accessible, but there's so much about food and what it truly costs to get from field to fork that is undervalued. Are relatively cheap cookbooks part of that?

Anyway I was so pleased with this book. it's spine is badly cracked now, and it's pages cockled by water and stained with god only know what (honey, tahini, lamb and apricot juices, orange flower water...) it is a much loved friend that falls open at well loved recipes in such a way that I sometimes think it decides for me which recipe I'll cook.

It's because of this book that I always have dried apricots and prunes in the house. It's this book that encourages me to buy cinnamon in catering sized packs, and that has shaped my spice rack in a dozen other ways. It's this book that taught me to cook rice properly, because before this I just chucked it in a pan with water - unmeasured - and overboiled it more often than not.

It was also Claudia Roden who made me realise how far you could explore from your own kitchen and how exciting that could be. I am not good with hot spices - even a tiny bit of chilli defeats me (which is a nuisance in Leicester, where I'm very aware of all the good stuff I'm missing out on), so realising spice didn't have to mean hot was a really big deal.

Another revelation was seeing the links between flavours direct from the Middle East at the heart of things like Christmas cake, mincemeat, plum pudding. This is when I started getting really interested in food history, and began to wonder when and where we got our traditions from. The stories, memories, customs, beliefs, and legends that Roden shares bring the recipes to life as well.

Browsing through Amazon reviews tonight I see that a few people lament the lack of pictures in this book. I don't mind that at all. As beautiful as food photography uniformly is these days, I rarely find it makes the food live in my imagination in the way that 4 descriptions of how to cook rice do in this book. Also, I'm much more nervous about staining the pages of those beautiful books, this one doesn't reproach me for the mess it's in.


  1. I really enjoyed this review. I don't have this book myself but somewhere I do have an old paperback of Julia Childs' et al French cooking one - unassuming, no photos, just explanations. Traditional French cooking isn't really my thing, but this one time I cooked a bechamel following that book to the letter it turned out GREAT, whereas all the other times I've cooked bechamels from books with pictures of said bechamel being poured seductively over dishes x, y, and z have resulted in less than GREAT sauces.

  2. Some of those classics might not be very glamorous to look at, but they're classics for a reason and you learn so much from them.