Claudia Roden: ‘What do I want from life now? Having people around my table’

Claudia Roden wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested in her writing another cookbook. “I kept telling my agent, ‘Nobody will want a book from an octogenarian!’” she says on a video call. Roden has just turned 85 to be exact, and she knew she wouldn’t have the energy for her usual process: travelling across countries and regions, painstakingly collecting recipes and stories from food lovers and chefs. But she is still a formidable home cook and relentless entertainer – for friends, for her children, now in their 50s and 60s, and their children – and, with a nudge from her agent, Roden wondered if there might be something in that.

“I was thinking, ‘What do I want from my life now?’” she says. “And I found that having people for dinner was what I enjoyed more than going to the theatre or to a concert. To have them just around my kitchen table was my idea and it will be what we cook. So I cooked hundreds of dishes and when we thought, ‘This is marvellous,’ it went in the book. I didn’t plan it to be Mediterranean. But it just was Mediterranean. Because that’s where I went.”

The result is Med, 120 recipes that bounce around between Cairo, Roden’s birthplace, and Genoa and Nice and Istanbul. Most of them are new and reflect “the way I like to eat now”: less meat, lots of intense, colourful salads and soups. There are more French dishes than you might expect; Roden mainly lives in Hampstead, but has kept a tiny studio in Paris for more than 30 years. “France has been, in a way, my second country,” she says, “and I never really wrote about it.”

There are also some stone-cold Roden classics, cherry-picked from a half-century chronicling the cuisines of Spain, Italy and the Middle East. “The way fashion goes is that people always want something new in food,” says Roden. “So quickly, something that has been overdone becomes passé and you’re ashamed to cook it. No, you shouldn’t be ashamed to cook it! If it’s great, you have to go on cooking it.”

Roden is in many ways the personification of these dishes: the food writer who never falls out of fashion. She began collecting recipes in 1956, while a student in London. The Suez crisis of that year turned many from Egypt into refugees: preserving the food culture of the Jewish community, and their Arab friends, was both practical (she wanted to eat those dishes again) and emotional. “For me, it was personal,” she says. “History was personal.” Her debut collection was the 1968 masterpiece, A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

In London, Roden’s marriage dissolved, but she is proud that she supported her three children with her food writing: Food of Italy (1989), The Book of Jewish Food in 1997 and 2012’s The Food of Spain among them. These were mainly aimed at home cooks, but quickly found their way into the most ambitious professional kitchens. “I remember going to the River Café with Madhur Jaffrey,” smiles Roden, “and I asked about a dish, and Rose Gray said, ‘Well, you should know! It’s your recipe.’”

The words and photographs on these pages are a testament to some of the chefs that Roden has inspired: Yotam Ottolenghi, Samantha Clark from Moro and José Pizarro. All of them have become regulars around Roden’s dining table, and all acknowledge their debt to her research. But this hasn’t always been the case. “The food writer Colin Spencer wrote once, ‘We all know all our Middle Eastern recipes come from Claudia Roden,’” says Roden. “But I knew that because I could see they were using Egyptian Jewish spelling for names. And I knew they weren’t travelling around.”

How best to describe Roden has proved difficult over the years. Simon Schama went for “memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet”. Roden laughs, “Oh no, because I never even went to university. So I’m just not a scholar. And whenever people say anthropologist, I say, ‘No, I’m just not that.’ Because they really have the rules and ways of dealing with things. I call myself a food writer. I just find a dish and want to learn all about it.”

One might have expected the Covid lockdowns to be punishing on the ever-gregarious Roden, and you would be half-right. “I just felt, ‘Oh my God, if it lasts more than three months, I couldn’t bear it,’” she says. “But actually, it was an advantage because everything was cancelled and I could work on the book. And my family kept coming to the garden.”

Roden is rightly proud of Med, and it has given her the taste to keep writing. She thinks she might like to “go back and really redo the Middle East – but in a smaller way”. Roden may be an octogenarian, but she’s not finished yet: “Definitely. I have to have a hope of something.” Then she whispers, “Secretly, I’ve never said that before.”

Chef, restaurateur and food writer

I came across Claudia Roden in the late 1990s. The first book of hers I got to know pretty well was The Book of Jewish Food: if there was ever a dish I needed the recipe for, I’d immediately go to Claudia. And it happened often. I didn’t grow up in a very traditional home and we didn’t cook a lot of Jewish food, especially not eastern European Jewish food. But you go to Claudia’s book and everything is there: well explained, within a context. And it’s also full of stories. So it’s kind of brilliant, because it does everything.

What she does so well is the mix-up of the scholarly and the practical. Often cookbooks are either great recipe books or they’re good books about the history or the sociological aspects of food. But she does both really, really well. Every time you meet up with her, she’ll tell you about a dish or about a tradition, and it will always be through interactions, real interactions she has with people. She’s so easy to be with that I’d imagine any person she chose to talk to would immediately open their hearts and their recipe books and tell their stories and secrets.

Claudia’s not overtly political, not in the way we perceive being political these days. But the inclusivity she celebrates through her writing is a political statement. She’s truly global in her scope and it really is an antithesis to the way we perceive the world in 2021, where it’s all about subsections and groups. Sometimes too much so, in my mind.

She wrote The Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1968. I was born that year, so I wouldn’t remember! Often people say, “Oh, you introduced the UK to these ingredients.” Which is completely wrong and I say, “No, actually Claudia Roden did.” It just took maybe another 35 years or so, when Sami [Tamimi] and I started cooking and publishing cookbooks, for the penny to finally drop, and for people to realise how wonderful these recipes are, how simple and fresh the cooking is.

With Claudia you’ll always find the classics. But her new book, Med, has definitely got recipes that are not strictly traditional. Of course, they’re very deeply connected to tradition, but she does her own little flourishes, which is also great. In the recipe I’ve chosen – a red pepper and tomato salad – I love that she has added some boiled lemon to it. She’s quite famous for boiling whole citrus. I’m sure you’ve come across her boiled orange cake, which has become so famous. More famous than her. In this case, her twist is boiling a lemon: she calls it “my little fantasia” – which is so her.

Her books are impressive and imposing, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time with Claudia over the years. She is as good a listener as she is a storyteller. Yeah, I really, really love her.

Inspired by Moroccan cooked salads, this one is a favourite for its glorious colour and marvellous flavours. The addition of boiled lemon, with its unique sharp taste, is my little “fantasia”. For this, boil an unwaxed lemon for 30 minutes until it is very soft.

Serves 4-6
red peppers 3 large fleshy
olive oil 1½ tbsp
cherry or baby plum tomatoes 300g, such as Santini
fresh chilli ½-1 , seeded and chopped, or a good pinch of ground chilli (optional)
garlic 3 cloves, finely chopped
sugar ½ tsp
boiled lemon 1 small (see recipe intro) or ½ large one (optional)

To serve
extra virgin olive oil 3-4 tbsp
coriander a few sprigs, leaves chopped

Preheat the oven to 200C fan/gas mark 7 and line a baking sheet with baking parchment or foil. Cut the peppers in half through the stalks, remove the stalks, seeds and membranes and arrange them, cut-side down, on the baking sheet. Roast for 25-35 minutes until they are soft and their skin is blistered. Put them in an empty pan with a tight-fitting lid or in a bowl with a plate on top and leave them to steam for 10 minutes, which will loosen the skins. When cool enough to handle, peel off the skins and cut each half into four ribbons.

While the peppers are roasting, heat the oil in a frying pan and add the tomatoes and chilli, if using. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes, shaking the pan and turning the tomatoes over with a spatula until they are soft. Push them to the side of the pan, add the garlic to an empty bit of the pan and cook, stirring, until the aroma rises and the garlic just begins to colour. Add the sugar and some salt and stir well.

Add the peppers to the tomatoes. If using the lemon, cut it into small pieces and add it to the pan, juice and all, but removing the pips. Stir gently over low heat for a minute or so. Leave to cool.

Serve at room temperature, drizzled with plenty of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of coriander.

Garnish with 10 black olives and 10 anchovy fillets in oil.

For a Neapolitan peperoni e pomodorini in agrodolce, dissolve 2 tablespoons of sugar in 100ml white wine vinegar, pour over the peppers and tomatoes and cook for a minute or two. Omit the sugar, boiled lemon and coriander.

Chef-owner of restaurants including Pizarro. He also recently opened at the Royal Academy, London

I met Claudia at the Hay festival many years ago, in 2012. She put out The Food of Spain at the same time I put out Pizarro: Seasonal Spanish Food. As we both had books on Spain out in the same year, we thought, why don’t we do our PR together?

She invited me to the Jewish Museum to cook with her, which was absolutely amazing. She is so generous, and a hero for the industry and for people who love food. And then we became friends. Now we enjoy long lunches and talk about life and the most beautiful things – food and family.

The Food of Spain is a reference and benchmark for me, and for anyone who really wants to learn and understand the history of this food – it is what she does so well. This new book is stunning. This recipe I have chosen is Spanish, it’s Catalan – and it is something that I cook sometimes as well. I just love clams and beans, and when I saw the picture with those empty shells, I wanted to be there with a big dish of it, sucking the clams.

Claudia has been travelling round the Med for so long, and she’s so interested in everything, that she always finds new inspiration. She’s a proper food writer who understands the reasons behind food. She lovescooking and she loves entertaining. The magic of Claudia comes from her heart and soul. When she writes a book, she thinks about how this food you’ll put on the table is going to bring people together.

One night on the seafront in Barcelona, I was looking for a restaurant that served zarzuela. I had eaten the extraordinary seafood stew many years before and it had left such an impression that I was desperately keen to have it again. My friend Pepa Aymami, who lives in Barcelona, only wanted clams. My zarzuela was disappointing but Pepa’s clams were delicious.

The Spanish alubias con almejas is my favourite clam recipe. Use good-quality white haricot beans from a jar or tin. The wine gives them a delicate flavour and the clams add the taste of the sea.

Serves 2
clams 650g
olive oil 3 tbsp
onion 1 large, chopped
fresh chilli ½ small, chopped (optional)
garlic 3-4 cloves, finely chopped
small white haricot beans 1 x 350g jar (or 1 x 400g tin), drained and rinsed
fruity white wine or cava 125ml
flat-leaf parsley 2 tbsp, chopped

Throw away any clams that are chipped or broken and any open ones that do not close when you tap them on the sink or dip them in ice-cold water. Scrub them with a brush if they are dirty. Leave them in fresh cold water for 20 minutes – as they breathe they will push out any sand that remains inside. Lift them out and rinse them in a colander under running water.

Heat the oil in a wide casserole or pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the onion and the chilli, if using, and stir over low heat until very soft and beginning to colour. Add the garlic and stir for a minute or so.

Add the beans, the wine and a little salt, mix gently and cook for 2-3 minutes. Put the clams on top, put the lid on, and cook over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes until the clams open. Throw away any that do not open. Serve sprinkled with parsley.

Chef and co-owner, Moro and Morito, London

When [husband] Sam and I worked in the Eagle pub in Farringdon, east London, just round the corner from where we are now at Moro, we were cooking Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. There was a well-thumbed copy of Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food, and we were discovering recipes from Morocco and the Middle East. We loved it. A year or two later, we went travelling on our honeymoon – we crossed over in the ferry from Spain in our caravan and arrived in Tangier. We had never been there before. The sounds and smells and the call to prayer … we were in the middle, people surrounding us, and we were overwhelmed.

We found somewhere to park and started walking round the city and there was someone selling chicken brik. These pastries were absolutely delicious and, although really simple, completely blew my mind with the delicate balance of the spice, the chicken and the fragrance. Later on that trip we found someone to teach us how to make the brik pastry. We would have read about it in Claudia’s book before we had gone, and there’s a version in this stunning new book, so it feels a fitting recipe to choose as it kind of ties us all together.

The biggest highlight for us was when Claudia came to Moro in the early days. In our minds she was a heroine. We asked her if she’d please sign our book, so old you could barely see the cover, and she wrote “For Sam, in admiration of your lovely cooking, Claudia”. Never in a million years would we have thought we would meet Claudia and she would love our food, and here we are 25 years later.

She’s still extraordinary, a brilliant culinary historian, and Moro wouldn’t be where it is without her. Her books inspired us to travel and took us on a journey. It’s a testament to her reign and her brilliance that not only is she still writing wonderful books, but she remains the doyenne of the culinary travels around the Mediterranean and Middle East. She’s very twinkly and very generous, and always so complimentary, and she acknowledges that we all have a shared love of this type of food – and that is what is being celebrated and embraced.

I have often enjoyed the Moroccan festive jewel in the crown b’stilla, a pigeon pie, and have made it many times myself, with chicken encased in layers of paper-thin pancakes (warka) or more often with filo pastry. Here, I have drawn from the flavours of versions from Fez (famously sweet) and Tetouan (famously sharp and lemony).

A light rectangle of puff pastry sits in for the crust. It is both sumptuous and easy.

Serves 4
all-butter puff pastry sheet 320g
egg yolk 1
onions 2 large (about 430g), halved and thickly sliced
olive or sunflower oil 4 tbsp, plus extra for greasing
ground ginger ¾ tsp
ground cinnamon 1½ tsp , plus extra to decorate
blanched almonds 50g, coarsely chopped
chicken thigh fillets 6, boneless and skinless, cut into bite-sized pieces
salt and black pepper
lemon juice 1-2 tbsp
orange grated zest of ½
boiled lemon ½ (see recipe intro for red pepper salad), chopped (optional)
icing sugar to decorate
coriander 1 bunch (25g), leaves chopped, to serve

Preheat the oven to 160C fan/gas mark 4. Take the pastry out of the fridge about 20 minutes before you want to use it.

Unroll the pastry onto a lightly oiled baking sheet. Cut it into eight rectangles. Brush the tops with egg yolk mixed with a drop of water and bake for about 15-20 minutes or until the pastry has puffed up and is golden brown.

Put the onions in a wide frying pan with the oil, put the lid on and cook over low heat, stirring often, for about 10 minutes until very soft.

Stir in the ginger and cinnamon, then add the almonds and the chicken pieces and season with salt and pepper. Cook uncovered for 7-8 minutes, stirring and turning the chicken until it is tender and lightly browned. Add the lemon juice and orange zest, the boiled lemon, if using, and 3-4 tablespoons of water, and continue to cook for 5 minutes.

Lightly dust the pastry rectangles with icing sugar, and make a small lattice pattern with ground cinnamon on top.

Stir the coriander into the chicken mixture and serve hot. Place two puff pastry rectangles on the side of each plate.

Med by Claudia Roden (Ebury Publishing, £28). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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