Claudia Roden, an acclaimed cookbook author, was born in 1936 in Cairo, Egypt. Her father, Cesar Elie Douek, was born in Cairo in 1898 soon after his family arrived from Aleppo. Cesar was a merchant. Her mother, Nelly Sassoon was born in Cairo in 1911 and married her father in 1933. Until the age of fifteen, she spent most of her childhood in a wealthy Jewish household where, surprisingly, the women of the household never cooked. In 1951, Roden left Egypt for Paris where she attended school for three years. She then enrolled at the St. Martin School of Art in London. After the Suez Crisis in Egypt in 1956, her family joined her in England. Both her parents died in London in 1992.
Though Roden began her career as a painter, using the social realism style modeled after Diego Rivera, she was later drawn to food as a way of remembering her lost heritage in Egypt. Her maternal grandmother Eugenie Alphandary, was born in Istanbul in 1888, and Roden remembered the pies stuffed with eggplant and spinach that she cooked. Roden also fondly recalled the mint and lamb of Sarah Hara, her paternal grandmother who was born in Aleppo in 1858, but since she had not learned any of these recipes in her youth, she feared that they would be lost. Her nostalgia and determination to preserve a culture that disappeared during the Suez Crisis, and which had few written recipes, led her to begin her study of cuisine.
In 1959 She married Paul Roden, a manufacturer and importer of clothing, and they had three children: Simon (1960), Nadia (1961) and Anna (1965). The marriage was dissolved in 1979. Roden began teaching Middle Eastern cooking at her home in London. Roden has had a varied career in the food world. Serving as a foreign food correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, she traveled to Italy researching that country’s cuisine for The Sunday Times Magazine. Later, she hosted a BBC TV series “Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery” and authored a variety of articles for magazines such as Gourmet, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, and Food Arts.
Roden is best known for her Egyptian approach to Jewish food found in A Book of Middle Eastern Food (1968) and her magnum opus The Book of Jewish Food—An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to Present Day (1997). Her other works include The Good Food of Italy—Region by Region (1990), Everything Tastes Better Outdoors (1984), Coffee—A Connoisseur’s Companion (1994), Mediterranean Cookery (1992), and The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (2000).
Her writing in The Book of Jewish Food earned her 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. Roden always includes ethnography and history of the kitchen and table, genealogy of recipes, dishes and ingredients. She traces the migration of each recipe and adds stories about the process of cooking, etiquette of serving and table manners, as well as the sequence and ritual of the meal. Roden is intensely interested in addressing the continuity of taste, techniques, and combination of ingredients. She often points out how modern cooking methods such as pounding, stuffing and shaping are surprisingly similar to the procedures of our ancestors. Each recipe also contains the story of how Roden attained it and folk tales surrounding the food, often starting with stories of her own childhood. As she says herself, “every recipe tells a story.”
Roden lives in London and continues to research, write, and cook.