Claudia Roden is a cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist based in the United Kingdom. She was born in 1936 in Cairo, Egypt. She is best known as the author of Middle Eastern cookbooks including A Book of Middle Eastern Food, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, The Book of Jewish Food and Arabesque—Sumptuous Food from Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. She has also been a food writer and a cooking presenter on the BBC. Claudia is a patron of London-based HIV charity The Food Chain.
An acclaimed author of cook books, Claudia was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1936. Her family were steeped in the culinary traditions of the Middle East. Three of her grandparents were from Aleppo, in what is now Syria, and one came from Istanbul, in Turkey. Her family was part of the extensive Sephardic Jewish community living in Egypt until the 1956 Suez Crisis.
In 1951, teenage Claudia left Cairo for Paris where she attended school for three years. Later moved to London where she studied at the St. Martin School of Art. After the 1956 Suez Crisis in Egypt and the short war that followed, involving Egypt, Israel, Britain and France, Claudia's family joined her in London setting up house in the suburb of Golders Green.
The Roden family
The experience of exile propelled Roden to begin her career as a cookbook writer of Middle Eastern cuisine. It was a way of gathering and enshrining in print form the foods she had grown up with. She feared the foods of her grandmothers' kitchens would be lost and she was determined to preserve and promote them through her writing.
Claudia's first book, A Book of Middle Eastern Food was published in 1968. Since then over a dozen others have followed including her magnum opus The Book of Jewish Food - An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to Present Day in 1997.
A Book Of Middle Eastern Food
Claudia has also taught Middle Eastern cooking from her home in London. She was a foreign food correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, and hosted a BBC TV series Claudia Roden's Mediterranean Cookery. Claudia has authored a variety of articles for magazines such as Gourmet, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, and Food Arts.
The Book of Jewish Food earned Claudia the highly respected James Beard Award for the Best Cookbook of the Year in 1997 and the National Jewish Book Award. She has also won a wide collection of other awards and trophies including six Glenfiddich prizes, most notably the 1992 Food Writer of the Year and the Glenfiddich Trophy. She has also been awarded the two most prestigious food prizes in Italy - The Premio Orio Vergani and the Premio Maria Luigia, Duchessa di Parma - in recognition of her London Times Sunday Magazine series "The Taste of Italy". She won a 1999 Versailles Award in France, and Prince Claus of the Netherlands acknowledged her with the Prince Claus Award "in recognition of exceptional initiatives and achievements in the field of culture".
Roden's books are respected for their writing as much as for their recipes. She is equally interested in ethnography, history and the poetry of the kitchen as a place for memory, taste and flavour. Most recipes in her books are embellished with historical, folk tales or personal stories. As she says herself, "every recipe tells a story".
1968: A Book of Middle Eastern Food
1970: A New Book of Middle Eastern Food
1981: Picnic: The Complete Guide to Outdoor Food
1987: Mediterranean Cookery
1990: The Food of Italy
1992: Claudia Roden's Invitation to Mediterranean Cooking: 150 Vegetarian and Seafood Recipes,
1997: The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day
1999: Coffee: A Connoisseur's Companion
1999: Tamarind and Saffron: Favourite Recipes from the Middle East
2000: The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
2001: Picnics: And Other Outdoor Feasts
2003: Claudia Roden's Foolproof Mediterranean Cooking
2003: Foreword to Traditional Moroccan Cooking by Madame Guinaudeau
2004: The Arab-Israeli Cookbook: The Recipes
2005: Arabesque - Sumptuous Food from Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon
2006: Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon
2007: Simple Mediterranean Cookery
2011: The Food of Spain
Golders Green, London - October 2011
So Claudia, can you talk about growing up in Egypt, and whether you ate hummus in your Jewish family?
Yes, we certainly ate hummus, and...because three of my grandparents came from Aleppo in Syria, and one came from Istanbul in Turkey, and we lived...we s-saw ourselves as, as Syrian almost. There was a whole, big Jewish community that came from Syria to Egypt, and joined the Egyptian community.
And the whole community was really a patchwork of people from Iraq, Iran, Morocco, and a lot from Syria and Lebanon...and, and there wasn't any Lebanon then...and, and Turkey, and because Egypt was like the El Dorado of the Middle East at that time, like the [sic] Dubai, but much more, because it was also cultural.
It was a great business centre, because the Suez Canal had made it...made Egypt a very important place. And it had killed the trade in Syria. So all these Jewish businessmen, traders, came to Egypt...a lot of them.
And so, we really...part of my family ate very much what people ate in Syria years ago, and continued to, into my family as well...my parents, and ourselves.
And was hummus part of that?
Hummus was a very important part of that. And, and so was tabbouleh and kibbeh. And we also adopted the falafel, which at that time, was very much Egypt. Falafel, fūl medammis. So we were eating a mix of foods. Generally, Arab foods, and, and Ottoman foods.
And was this true of Jewish families in Egypt generally, that they would eat hummus and other Arabic foods?
Of course, because they always shared the cultures of wherever they lived. And they carried the old cultures, because they moved. It was very easy to move in those days, because it was all Ottoman Empire. There were no borders. You could settle where you wanted. And people did.
And they did move, because they were mostly traders, and they went where for trade, or for various reasons. In those days, it wasn't for persecution. And, and so, yes, they...
Perhaps the people of 'my' generation, and my parent's generation, started speaking French. And they spoke French, even before the Muslims of Egypt did, because it became the Lingua Franca. And in the time of King Farouk, it 'was' the Lingua Franca.
You went to the stores, the big stores, and you spoke in French. You went to the cinema...you bought your ticket, in French. But if you went to the butcher, you would speak in Arabic, or the, the greengrocer. If you went to buy cheese, and that sort of grocery, you might speak Greek, because Greeks were the grocers.
But...so they were more cosmopolitan in a way, before the others, because we spoke French at home as well. And also, we had Italian Slovene nannies. And Italian Slovene nannies were...had been coming since the time of the Suez Canal...the opening of the Suez Canal.
And nearly all the women from several villages in Slovenia that were near Italy...that had become part of Italy, and so they had been forced to speak Italian as children...they came to look after most people in the community.
In your Jewish family in Cairo, where would you get your hummus? Would you make it? Would you get it from street vendors? Where did the hummus come from, that you would consume?
Our cook would make it. We had a cook from Upper Egypt. And he learnt to cook all the Sephardi Jewish things. And he stayed with us from before my elder brother was born, well until my parents married, from then, until they left.
And yes, we 'could' buy it in the street. But my mother always thought...although my father always tried to eat in the street, my mother always thought first of all, that it might be dirty...she would tell him. But actually it wasn't, because all our relatives ate in the street.
But I think she felt offended that he actually wanted to eat something in the street, because we had lots to eat at home.
Was hummus popular in your house...in your family?
Yes. Hummus was extremely popular. And we didn't think about it. We just had there a-,... nearly all the time.
What about other Jewish families in Egypt? Last time we talked, you talked about Jewish families travelling to the Pyramids, and taking, or eating hummus at the Pyramids, which I thought was a nice story.
Yes. In fact, I found a, a photograph of us on a picnic. No, we...actually we went on to the dam. It wasn't the Aswan Dam at the time. It was another little dam.
We usually went on, on trips, on days out, with the whole extended family, which could be huge. So we went in several cars, and we brought our food, we brought our picnics.
But there were specialists, where we'd stop, and we would then maybe not bring our food, because there were those specialists who, who cooked pigeons, like the...we called them le jardin de pigeon.
And it was...my great, great joy, my great dream, was to go and eat pigeons, you know. They were tiny, baby pigeons. But they also always had the meze. And the mezes always had hummus. It was the main thing. And it was an Arab salad of chopped up tomatoes, cucumbers, and other things.
With all your culinary work, and your experience as both an historian and a writer, what do you think of the origins of hummus? How far back into history can we go, to find the source of hummus?
I'm...I don't think anybody is sure, because, you know, what is written, you go and look at what is written. But then people never wrote down. And there 'were' books written in the 13th century in Syria, and, and also in Baghdad, and also in Egypt. But I'm not sure that hummus was mentioned there.
I mean, hummus as it is, because hummus means chickpeas. Of course, chickpeas were mentioned, even in the Bible. But the actual dish, I'm not sure. But it goes...it must be a few centuries old, I would say, because also, this mixing of, of chickpeas with tahina, is something...you know, you don't just do it, because you do it, because it's there. You had to think of mixing it together.
But certainly, all the countries that had chickpeas, and that also had sesame meal or sesame seeds to make sesame meal, they would do it.
And perhaps, perhaps, it could be Syria, because in Syria it's...it, it was one of the earliest great civilisations, where they had the Umayyad Empire, the, the Caliphs, and, and...but that was at the beginning of the, of the, the Muslim Empire.
But it wasn't then, because the, the books at the time didn't have, that [sic] told you what people ate at that time. They didn't have mention [sic] exactly of what hummus was like.
But much later, yes. People, people did. I...it must be much older, I would say, than the 19th century or 18th century...I would say. But it...I'm not sure.
Yes, there 'is' a recipe that I know of, that was...came out of a culinary manual in Baghdad, that Charles Perry mentions in his book 'Medieval Arab Cookery'. And also, I had in translation by Professor Arberry where hummus is mixed with tahina.
But it has a whole lot of other ingredients, which really has nothing to do with the hummus dish as we know it today. I mean there were several spices. There were pistachios. There were all kinds of things. Herbs as well. A big, big mixture.
But also the way it was made, doesn't really relate to how we make it today.
So how common are chickpeas in the Arab world, and a source for cooking? How important are they?
Chickpeas are extremely important, and they always were. And they were mentioned in the Bible, already, and in Ancient Egypt, and in, in what is Palestine, and Greater Syria. All the parts, all the parts where they have chickpeas, they formed really the most important part of the diet, because people...on the whole, the populations were poor.
The peasantry was poor. It's really peasant dishes, because they could never afford meat, except for maybe once a year...once a year. And so they needed proteins. And chickpeas have very good proteins. They're a source of that.
Let's talk about the hummus war, and claims that hummus is originally from Israel, originally from Lebanon, or originally Palestinian. What do you think about the hummus war, and these claims of ownership?
It's really just an economic war about producers...Israeli producers, and Lebanese producers, because the Lebanese feel they want to sell their hummus. And they're angry that Israel does. And, and so in a way, it is a war. But they pretend it's a cultural war.
And they've tried to make it that, and it doesn't wash. And it's just funny. But still, it has certainly given them a huge amount of publicity. Every year, the BBC World Service calls me to say that there is another...a part of the war that actually is played out in Covent Garden.
And there is also the Guinness Book of Records. And one year, it's the, the Palestinians in Israel. The Israeli Arabs who make it, and win the record of the biggest, greatest, heaviest hummus. And anoth-,...the next year, it's the Lebanese.
So in a way, they're all doing well out of it. But I think that now, something else has come into it. And, and it has to do with, with campaigns against Israel, by people in the West. And in a way, the, the Lebanese are trying to make more of that, in a way, to sell their produce.
I don't think they are doing it to help the Palestinians, or...but I suppose, those who 'do' campaign against the Israeli products, they do it because they care about the Palestinians, and they're angry about what Israel is doing.
I've heard plenty of Jewish people, particularly amongst settlers, tell me that hummus is definitely an Israeli food, that it's mentioned in the Bible, that it's as much a part of the land as anything else?
The word hummus 'is' mentioned in the Bible, because it's also a Hebrew word, and because they mention chickpeas. So if they say chickpeas, chickpeas belong to the Bible. And if they think, you know, it's a Bible land, biblical land, yes, in 'that' way. But I don't think, in the Bible, they have a recipe with tahina, and garlic, and lemon.
So do you see it as farcical, that Israelis claim that it 'is' an Israeli traditional dish?
Yes, it 'is' an Israeli traditional dish, because the...Israel is only a recent country. So from the moment they were there, they were eating hummus. And it wa-,...it became their national dish very early on.
And, you know, somebody gave me a little book long ago, called 'Israeli Cooking', and it has hummus, and with tahina. And it has all the things that the Palestinians made.
And they of course, make it...some of the things, they make them in a mix of...because they use, for instance, Yemenite spices, or, or Iraqi pickles to go with it.
So in a way, there's something Israeli that has, has been created. And in the same way as there's something British that's been created, or rather, many splendid things that are British, that are hummus.
Why do you think that Israelis have embraced hummus, falafel, and Arabic foods in such a big fashion? What does that say about a changing Israel, changing Israeli national identity?
Yes. Well, when the, when the first Pioneers came to Israel, and also when the first people who had escaped the holocaust came to Israel, but especially the Pioneers, they wanted to forget their old food...[different pronunciation] food, because for them, it reminded them of persecution, and of something that they didn't want to be any more.
And also, there was an idea that you, you came to the Promised Land. And the Promised Land had for them, images of, of...the images that English painters had painted of biblical times.
And this was, I think, in the 19th century, when English painters would go out there to, to the land of Palestine, and, and paint shepherds...paint shepherds who were, you know, with their sheep.
And they had this idea that this was biblical clothes and biblical food. And so, in the same way, the Israelis found something there, that they thought, 'This is as close as we'll get to our biblical food'.
And actually, all the things that the Palestinians were eating, were mentioned in the Bible anyhow, because the Bible had the products...the produce of the land.
And some Israelis who liked to say, you know, 'We've come back to our land, and you can see it in the food', they do tell you, 'Look, I'm just walking down the road and I've seen this herb...that herb was mentioned in, in the Bible, and it's growing between two dry stones'.
So they are extremely excited at the thought of the food that they find, the vegetables that they find, the products that they find, the olives and all those things, the artichokes, things that they didn't have in, in Europe, or in Eastern Europe.
They're there, and they are the things mentioned in the Bible. So it 'is' an idea.
You were talking about the Halutzim. Did the Halutzim also eat hummus? Was this something that they...can you talk about hummus and Halutzim?
Yes. The Halutzim, the Pioneers, were poor. And they came to live in kibbutz...in kibbutzim. They never got any money. They...when they were allowed out, when they went out on outings, they went into the towns.
And they found vendors selling the cheapest food that they could buy. It was the cheapest food, and it still is. And, and they got used to eating pita bread, with hummus, and falafel, and, and salad put in.
And this is what they first knew, and also what they first could afford.
Tell me about Palestinian cuisine, and in this context, because on the West Bank, among settler communities, I've heard many people say to me, there is no such thing as a Palestinian cuisine, because there's no such thing as Palestinians...?
On the West Bank settlers, you mean?
Yes. They can say what they like. That's all I can say. But there 'are' actually different regional foods in what was Palestine, and what is still where Palestinians live.
There is...you know, different parts of, of the area have different foods. Some of them are more like Syrian, because they're closer to Syria. And some have Egyptian style dishes. Also there are the dishes of the sea, and then there are dishes of the desert...of the Bedouins.
And there are distinctive particular dishes that are more Palestinian than Syrian or Egyptian. You...one could say, this is really more a Palestinian dish. But otherwise, it is what you could say, Greater Syria, would have been. And in Syria itself, they have regional dishes, and they're different.
And so in Lebanon, in Lebanon, you have dishes of the Druze, of the Maronites, of the Armenians, and also regional of, of the mountains, of the sea. So it isn't just...somehow, a few dishes abroad, have become icons of the Arab world.
But there are hundreds more dishes around. But hummus is one of the icons, and, and, and the most familiar one. And so, you know, people dispute that. They don't go disputing all the other things.
Why do you think hummus has become an icon of the international world? It's in New York, it's in London...?
Well, when I first came to Britain, nobody, nobody had ever heard of hummus. And they kept telling [sic], hummus, is it, you know, like this thing in the soil? That's called humour, sort of and, you know, it was a thing of laughter. The name was a thing of laughter.
But also, they didn't know what chickpeas were, and they didn't know what pita was. And in my book I was explaining, pita bread is a bread with a pouch. And everybody said, they can't 'have' a pouch in a bread. How 'could' it be a flat bread...a flat bread, but there's no pouch.
But...so in a way, they even...when I was writing for instance, about courgettes, I was saying, they're baby marrows. They didn't know peppers. I mean, England, Britain, knew very, very little of that part of the world.
And so...but hummus...I think, one of the things is that when I bec-,...I, well I...my book, my first book, came out in 1968. And there was not a single Lebanese restaurant then. The only place that I found hummus, was in a restaurant called The Black Cat. It was in Charlotte Street.
And I still... you know, nostalgic about it. When I go by in Charlotte Street, I just think, I was an arts stru- [sic], student. And only art students would go there, or students, because it was really cheap, poor food.
It was young people who adopted hummus first, because they started travelling, and backpacking. And they started travelling to exotic places, and they came back to university, or they came back to whatever, and they were poor, at home.
And so they knew the taste, and they liked it. And that's what they could afford abroad. And that's what they could afford to actually make. In those days, I met a lot of young people who were actually making it, because you couldn't find it in supermarkets.
Now, the supermarkets are awash, awash with hummus. And, you know, all the sandwich bars, and wherever you go...canteens...they would have something with hummus.
Do you want to tell me that story about when you first came to London with your family, and you invited members of the local Jewish community to...your mother invited people? Tell me that story and about how hummus was part of that.
When my parents first came, and they first bought a house in Golders Green, they...quickly, people, neighbours came round, and said, 'Are you Jewish?' And, and they said, 'Yes'. And, and they said, 'Did you...you had to leave Egypt?' and, you know...so the people were very, very sympathetic.
They were who had come from Germany, who had come...originated in Poland, or from the East End or wherever. And they...my mother quickly invited them to come for tea. And, and so she, when she invited them, they all came.
And my mother spent days preparing all kinds of things that we ate in Egypt, and including...there was hummus there. And the people came, and were...they were all aghast. And one of them asked my mother, 'Are you sure you're Jewish?'
So, you know, they couldn't believe that they ate this kind of food. But this was a time when the Israeli restaurant trade hadn't come into, into London. And there were no Israeli restaurants, no Israeli products in the supermarkets. For the in, in Britain, it has come to be Israeli food.
People in the cooking trade in Israel, were from the Middle East. The European didn't see themselves as cooks. Cooks was the lowest possible job you could have, and it was poorly paid.
But they wanted jobs with...where their mind will be used. But a lot of the cooks...the professional cooks...were trained in the army. Everybody was trained in the army. And the Oriental chose to go in the kitchen...a lot of them.
Now, some Ashkenazi , when I asked them, why did they go in the kitchen, they said, because, you know, you wanted people with brains up front, you know, not in the kitchen. You don't want to waste them in the kitchen.
And then when I asked the Sephardi , who 'had' gone in the kitchen, 'Why did you choose to be in the kitchen?'...and they said, 'Because you had so many days off', you know. You could go home, and all that.
But also, their food is considered, I think, now, by Ashkenazi , as preferable. I might be told off about that, because when my Jewish book came out, two-thirds of the book, more or less, represents Sephardic cooking, and one-third represent Ashkenazi cooking.
And Ashkenazi are actually two-third of the Jewish population of the world. And so they thought they should have more space in a Jewish book. But actually, the reason is that nowadays, they called Sephardi everybody who isn't Ashkenazi.
And it includes the Indian , and the Italian , and from Greece, and so on.
The, the reason is that the Ashkenazi have actually a standard culture in food. It's not totally standard. It varies. It depends if you're a Hungarian Jew, a German Jew, a Russian Jew...but the core dishes were all born in Germany, in the 10th century.
And, and these were the dishes that they brought to Poland, when they were persecuted in Germany, at the time of the Crusades, and, and...
Give me an example of the types of food...
Examples like gefilte fish, chopped liver, tzimmes...it's carrots... tzimmes. And certainly stuffed carp was, was the one, and pickled herrings. And, and actually, even challah bread. Challah bread was a bread from Southern Germany, which is still there.
And so, they brought...when they were forced into living in ghettos in...closed in on themselves, in a way, those dishes that they were eating in Germany, became, became part of their cultural baggage, that represented who they were.
And when they went to Poland, they we-,...in Poland, they lived mostly in shtels. They brought that food along, but they gathered some more dishes that were Polish.
And then eventually, part of Poland became Russia. And they were...found themselves in the Russian Pale of Settlement, which was also an area where Catherine the Great allowed them to stay, just in that area. She didn't want them outside.
But only the very, very special who became great scholars, great musicians, great doctors, and in...and entrepreneurs in the end, were able to leave the s-, the Pale of Settlement.
But...so in a way, they kept the standard dishes that everybody does on a Sabbath. Even in, in...for instance, in Hungary, where they have a lot of other dishes, there are those dishes that they always do on the Sabbath.
And so, it is the same, whereas the Oriental , that are Oriental, those who came originally from Spain, they all have different dishes. And the dishes are different in every country. Sometimes in different cities in the same country.
And sometimes, there are three different communities in the same city, that eat their own dishes, or have their own specialities.
And so in a way...in India, there is, for instance, four different kinds of Jewish Indian foods...there's not a big Jewish Indian community, but they have four different kinds of foods-- so in the book, in a way, because they have so much variety, that's why there's what we called, we called everybody Sephardim, although the word Sephardi means 'from Spain' in, in Hebrew.
We found one restaurant in Jerusalem which sold itself as serving Yiddish food. I find that remarkable for a Jewish country that seemingly has rejected all its old food.
And now it's come back to fashion.
Yes. Yes, certainly, it is a phenomenon, because when I first went to Israel, you couldn't find that kind of restaurant. And then now, there are lots of restaurants where all the young Sephardi, Moroccan , Iraqi , even Afghan Jew- [laughs], they would go there because in a way, being Yiddish, is being superior, because it is considered the superior culture. And so even the Sephardi now, would go there, as a fashionable thing to be seen at, and, and to eat.
Interestingly this place was in the heart of a Hasidic Orthodox community. And while we were there, lots of people with the black hats and dark coats came in, to eat their food. So it seems like the really Orthodox community is still a bit locked into eating the old food?
Yes. And certainly, because they originated in, in Poland, and parts of Russia. And even though they might have...because they also represent the aristocracy of the Hasidic community, because they have been joined by Moroccan , who also have become Hasidic.
But they are not seen as the top people of the Hasidic community. And so Yiddish is their language. And, and somehow their culture is also the culture of Poland and, and...Poland in particular.
Well, when I was in America, researching my Jewish book, I went to interview people in a Hasidic community in Flatbush. And there they were, with their black hats and everything. And I came to ask them for recipes. It would be Polish, and they had just...they had a few years ago, produced a book called 'Hamisha Cooking'. It means home cooking.
And as soon as I came, the first thing they wanted, is, would my publisher publish their new book that they were collecting for. And I said, 'Yes, why not? I'll introduce you. And what kind of...but you've already done 'Hamisha cooking'.
And they said, 'No, this one is going to have Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, everything'. And I said, 'But shouldn't you be eating...'...'No, why should we? Everybody else eats whatever'. And then I said, 'But at Shabbat...'...you know, Friday night and Saturday...'...is that what you eat? Thai, and tofu, and all...?'
'No!...course not. We eat gefilte fish, chopped liver' tzimmes, pickled herring, chicken'...you know, all the things that, you know that...it is the ritual food.
But otherwise, they feel they're entitled to eat other things. That's in America. I'm sure, in Israel, you know...I don't know, they're extreme or whatever. They probably eat health foods the rest of the time.
Okay, so Claudia, in your Book of Jewish Food, you talk about the need for a national cuisine in Israel. And I'm wondering whether you see hummus as part of that same need for a kind of common thing that we like, given that Israelis come from all over the world. It's a very multicultural country. Is hummus something that's unifying?
Yes. I think hummus is really one of the foods that everybody in Israel likes. And that certainly, it is something that unifies. That means, they all like the same thing, and they can understand each other better. That's what they thought at the beginning. But that's one of the foods.
Are you able to talk about the uniqueness of the tradition of Arabic food literature? It seems extraordinary that up until about the 14th century, they do more Arabic cookbooks in the whole world, than in all the other languages combined. Can you talk about that, and what is it that...?
Somehow, in Muslim society, food has always been important. But in the Middle Ages, or rather even earlier, during the time of the Arab conquests, or rather, after the Arab conquests, when they established courts, and courts...there were court cuisines, food played a very important time.
So food was very important in, in Damascus, when it was the, the first Muslim capital of the Muslim Empire, and, and then Baghdad in the time of the Abbasids.
Already, there, the writing about food was something that the elite did. And it was something that princes did. And so it was like a form of poetry, or something like that. And so there was a lot of writing about food. Not all of it has, has remained. But some of it has.
And some of it that has remained, alludes to earlier books. So there was already, earlier on. And then even in Turkey, in the Ottoman Empire, food played a hugely important part.
And, well, I did ask a Turkish chef, how come the Turks were so great on food, and why would they be...at one time, they considered themselves the third best, after France and China, and, and other people also considered them the third best...
...but he said, 'Oh well, because, you know, when a man had four wives, he had to really eat well', so [laughs] to be able to satisfy four wives. But then, someone else, I think, had more of a realistic answer, and it was that hospitality plays a very, very important part in a part of the world where a lot of people lived in the desert.
And in the desert, you have to give the stranger food, or else they'll die, because so many people were wandering around. And so I think there was also stories about how people who...you know, Bedouins who had tents and so on, they would hide their tent somewhere, so that they wouldn't have too many strangers coming to their door.
And there's so many, actually, Arabs saying, that you have to give a-all that you have, to your guest. And, and even in the Quran, it says, if you're a guest, you can always be a guest. But on the third day...I think it's in the Quran, or just a saying, I'm not sure...but on this day, you have to explain why you're there.
So with hospitality, comes food. And food giving is, is the important thing. And then, also it's a very sensuous part...culture. And I don't know quite why. I haven't thought about it.
But, you know, where they like perfumes, and they like things like spices and herbs, and aromatics, rosewater, orange blossom...every kind of, of aromatic that you can think of, is used in some part of the Middle East, not all of them the same ones.
Where do you see hummus in relationship to that welcoming hospitality culture?
Well, hummus is one of the first things that people will have in the refrigerator. And also, it's a cheap thing. And it is a meze. And people feel that when a stranger comes, you bring out your little mezes, and, and...or else, it's pastries. With pastries it's a different thing.
So, in your Jewish Food book, you say, 'Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted migrating people'. But I'm wondering whether that could be true of them and Palestinians in equal measure, and apply to hummus as well?
Yes, certainly. The Palestinians are in a way, people say, they are of the Arab world. And they too, have...some of them...have been turned into also migrating people. And I'm...I know they miss all their foods, and they miss them as much as maybe the, the people from the Arab world. But also the Israelis now. And they all miss hummus, I'm sure.
But I, I was... many years ago, I went to a conference, where there were a lot of Palestinians. It was about Palestine. And one came over and said, 'Claudia, thank you so much, because I was desperate for foods...for our foods. And then I, I got your book. So now I feel I can eat all the things that...'...so, some of things are similar things.
Why did you decide to write about Middle Eastern food and culture? And did your decision come from the experience of having to flee, as a refugee? Was it motivated by exile?
I certainly would never have written the first book, nor maybe any other book of food, if it wasn't because we had to leave. And we thought we'd never, ever see Egypt again, and also that we would never see each other again...each other meaning a whole, big community that left and spread out all over the world.
We were a very big and vital community. And we were...we knew each other. I came from a very large, extended family, and we were used to being together all the time. And suddenly we were...w-we might never even see each other again.
And so, when I really, really felt...the importance is that my parents had a house in Golders Green, and they were the first people to settle, almost. And people coming and going, and deciding where to settle, would come and visit...would come and stay for dinner.
And some of them came to sleep. We had to put mattresses on the floor, because we didn't have that many beds. But I, I was seeing so many people from Egypt, at the same time, in, in a very powerful way.
And I felt that one of the things that everybody was asking or giving, was recipes, because we were such a mixed community, some of us had Turkish recipes, some had Syrian, some had Moroccan. And so really, we felt, if we don't get them now, we'll never get them.
Also, nobody had any cookery books. There weren't any. There weren't even Egyptian cookery books, let alone of Egypt cookery books. And so it, I realised that if I have to do something that's worthwhile, this is what I've got to do, for us to collect.
And so I just started collecting, and I became an obsessive collector. And why I wrote about culture and history, is that eventually, when I started telling people about collecting, and, and dishes, people would ask me, 'What are you...writing about food?'...you know, because I was an artist.
And I would say, 'Yes, and it's Middle Eastern'. And then I would get a sort of glazed look. People looking sorry for me, and saying, 'Oh, poor thing'. And, you know, the kind of questions that people would say...somebody said, 'Is it about sheep's eyes and testicles?'
And so I thought, you know, really, here I am with, you know, so much passion for these dishes, that to me a-are something of great importance, and these people have no idea.
And I realised that, why 'should' they be interested, if they didn't know something about them, and about the culture, from which they sprang? And so, that was important. But also, because I was brought up very...as a European.
It means, I went to an English school. I spoke French at home, and Italian at home. And my father came from a very Arab culture in his home, and my grandparents spoke Arabic. And even my grandmother didn't speak French, or she did a little.
So they came from a culture that to me was something just a bit further than my own...my own. But which also meant happiness, and family, and for me, roots. And so for me, the interest in the culture came because I didn't...I hadn't learnt it. And at school we didn't get any Arab culture.
I wonder whether food is also strongly connected to memory? We were talking before, how it helps create a sense of belonging? Memory, and belonging to a certain place. Can you talk about food in those terms?
I think that food, like music, is one of the most evocative thing [sic], and the most evocative thing that triggers memories. And, you know, if you smell something, and, you know, it brings back...smell is hugely important of course, in food...but if you hear music that meant something to you, it's hugely moving, and the same with food.
And some people feel that, you know, food can absolu-, appeal to all your senses, but also to your emotions. And some people feel they can cry over a dish.
You talk about dishes being more than a dish... there's history that connects to a recipe. Can you talk about that too, that it's about place and time, and culture?
Yes. I mean nowadays, people talk about food as though it's something just invented in the moment, and that it springs up from, you know, some-, something in a magazine that has no background, no place...it could be anything. You just put things together.
But actually, all the societies have dishes, traditional dishes. Dishes that have hundreds of years of history behind them. And you can easily...if you look at the history...know exactly who's been there. And you look at the history, and yes, lo and behold, yes, they 'were' there.
And this is what happened in this place, because it's left a legacy. And the legacy is in the dish. And so I have enormous...for me, fascination for actually what is behind a dish, and that it represents a past.
And a past that sometimes people deny...can be in denial of. You know, like some Spaniards who are in denial of their Muslim and Jewish past. Some of them are not in denial at all, but some are. And then I just say, 'Well, dishes don't lie. There they are. That's what it is'.
Do you think that hummus helps define who people are?
Not any more. No, hummus has become international. And even people might not know, this is what's happening now in the West, because it's all mixed up together. And...but I can see that now, all the supermarkets make all kinds of hummus nowadays, in Britain, and probably in America as well.
And it has become...they've appropriated it, and...but I think they do still want to b-, say its origin. I don't know for how long. But they always say now, a Middle Eastern dish, with...so somehow, until now, it is Middle Eastern.
They don't say Lebanese. They don't say Israeli. They don't say Jordanian. They say Middle Eastern. And when my book came out, a few people criticised me for calling it Middle Eastern. And I didn't know what to call it at that time. Even North Africa was considered the Middle East.
And in... because we were talking about the Middle East politically, when 'we' were thrown out, that's what I called it. But somebody said, 'No, each country is different'. Of course, each country is different, and, and some don't have hummus. For instance, Iraqis didn't have hummus. But they do now, you know. Now, every Arab country has hummus, and Muslim country.
Okay Claudia, show us the hummus. Tell us all about it. Tell us what's funny about it?
Okay, well I went out early this morning to get some hummus from just the two supermarkets that are right next to me, and they are opposite each other. And all the supermarkets have their own brand of, of hummus.
Now, this is the...let me see...the Marks & Spencer ones. And just to show you how hummus has taken a new life and become different in this country...and this one, for instance has...they spell 'houmous' by the way, [spells word] h-o-u-m-o-u-s. Mostly it's spelt h-u-m-m-u-s.
And so here, I don't know why, it might be that it's a Cypriot manufacture [sic], but I don't - I'm not sure...but here, it says, 'Herb and onion seed dip'. So it's got... as you can see [laughs] herbs, different kinds, onion seed, and it's got even some tomato...bits of tomato, or...
So, there, there it is. And who knows, perhaps it's made by a Cypriot company, by a Bangladeshi workforce... Bangladeshi ladies who come on a bus, and go home on a bus. And, here it is.
And here again, is from Marks & Spencer, a lemon and coriander hummus. Also, you don't usually put coriander. They call it a Middle Eastern dip, made with chickpeas, lemon juice, coriander and garlic.
They now put very little garlic, because not many people like garlic here. So they put less than it would...and let's see what colour it has.
Well, here it is. It's got little bits of coriander. I don't know what it tastes like. I usually make it myself. But maybe it's not bad. And the thing is, yes they have taster, and they do...it might be people who like spicy food, decide, let's do some spicy one.
And here's this one. It's a different colour. It's slightly orangey. And it's called, 'Spicy Red Pepper Houmous'. And it says, 'A much loved Moroccan recipe'. Yes, actually they 'do' have a dip which is, which is mashed chickpeas.
But they don't...here, they call 'a rich, smoky houmous, made spicy with roasted and red peppers, and red chilli harissa paste.
Oh, it might be quite good. And so, this is...there were several more actually. I didn't buy them all. And here are the ones from Waitrose. This one is called 'Essential...', 'Essential houmous'. And it is...there's one that is a rough houmous, that...it means they haven't blended it very, very finely.
This is really fine. And it's very, very bare. It's simple. I, if I open it, I'll know whether it's any good. And a lot of people now, who care about hummus, they buy this, and then they add their own garlic, lemon, and, and, and olive oil, and salt and pepper...and sometimes add a bit more tahini if there's not enough.
So this is... they call it 'Essential'. And there's one, I think they call it...I saw one that's called 'Organic'. And there's an organic one. I wonder how they make it organic? But I would have thought, until now, all the chickpeas are organic, you know, because they're grown organically. They wouldn't be grown in, in Britain.
And here's another Moroccan style hummus [houmous], and it's a Middle Eastern dip, made with chickpeas, coriander, red chilli, roasted cumin, and onion seed. So, it's a bit different. So every supermarket has their own, their own things that they're inventing.
So given it's an ancient food, I'm just wondering how you feel about something that has such got an illustrious past, and it's been something that's been made in family kitchens and the family home, across the Middle East for a long time? How do you feel about the fact that it's now ended up in a plastic tub on a shelf in a supermarket?
Well for me, it's very, very exciting. And I wish my father was alive, because he died about 20 years ago, and he could...I think he couldn't have believed that grandchildren and all their friends, they come in from school and they want hummus.
And, you know, they put some pita bread, and eat it. And he would find it very, very amusing. And, you know, I'm happy that I...I'm happy in a way, I think it is also to do with integration, because they always said that if you don't, if you... there is a stranger who eats strange food, you're slightly worried about that person.
And, you know, when Indian people first came to England, English people would say they didn't want to live near Indians, because of the smell of their food. It was disgusting to them.
And now, actually, some of the Indian dishes have become English national dishes, like Vindaloo, and Chicken Tikka Masala. And hummus is another one of these dishes that's become a national dish almost, you could say, because everybody eats it.
And yes, it's, it's amusing. But I also think it brings a certain acceptance of the foreigner. If you can eat the same thing as a foreigner, then, you know, you enjoy the same thing, and you are that much closer, and, and of understanding.
Claudia Roden and Trevor Graham in London
You've talked about the kitchen being a place of fraternisation. I'm wondering whether you can imagine a day when Israelis, and Lebanese, and Palestinians, might sit down together and fraternise over a plate of hummus, and wipe from the same bowl, 'cause the wiping is very important?
I have to say that they 'do', anyhow, and that the Arabs, the Israeli Arabs, are in the Israeli kitchens. And they are the, the...amongst the, the workers, the Israelis couldn't replace with Sri Lankans or Filipinos or whatever, because they know how to cook.
And there is a great fraternisation amongst cooks, amongst chefs. And that is what I found, and this is what I, I really feel...you know, there are areas in Israel where people do get on together. And they 'do', in the kitchens.
And when I was there recently, actually there was a documentary film festival, and...because there were documentary films about food. We had a panel. And we had two Palestinian Muslim chefs. And they were arguing with Israelis, with great panache, telling the Israelis, they had no food culture, you know.
And...but also, you know, it was humorous and friendly, and we were invited...I was invited, with a group of Israeli friends...were intellectual...to go and eat, in the restaurants.
And we became huge friends. Yeah, and, there was for instance a Tunisian Jew from Djerba, who was there. And when I...on the first day that I came, I was invited in a pub. And in the pub, there was a group of musicians who were playing Syrian wedding music. And just outside in the courtyard, there was this Tunisian Jew doing a barbecue.
And I just felt, where am I? Am I in, you know...where am I? This was Israel. And there was just so much good, friendly humour. And there was the two Palestinian cooks...chefs, who were with us.
And I just felt, how happy this can be. And certainly, there is...a bond is created, when people eat together, and it's convivial, and they can laugh, and they see themselves...each other...as people, 'cause really people 'want' to get on. They want...they don't want to have hate, and enemies, and all that.
And I can see it brings back to me, this Arab saying, that when you eat together, you can't betray each other. I don't know how true this is. But oh yes, one person I ate with, betrayed me. But I won't say who. It wasn't in Israel.