Episode 3: People of the Cookbook (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: “Every cuisine tells a story,” writes Claudia Roden in the Book of Jewish Food. “Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds.”
Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous and this is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. With Passover just around the corner, I’m visiting the celebrated writer and chef Claudia Roden in London. We’ll talk about cooking for Passover, Claudia’s childhood in Egypt, and what makes Jewish food Jewish.
Nahanni: Claudia’s quest to collect her family recipes led to a lifelong career as a cookbook author—in addition to The Book of Jewish Food, she’s also well-known for her Middle Eastern, Italian, and Spanish cookbooks. But Claudia does a lot more than write recipes—The Book of Jewish Food traces the DNA of Jewish cuisine. With food as a vehicle, Claudia takes us on a tasting tour through the kitchens of Jewish history.
Conductor: The next station is Golders Green. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.
Nahanni: At the end of a dead end street in this historically Jewish neighborhood, Claudia Roden’s stone house is hidden behind an arbor.
[Doorbell rings, door opens]
Nahanni: The heavy oak door opens, and Claudia Roden smiles.
Claudia Roden: Was it wet? Was it raining?
Nahanni: It’s a typical gray London day. But in Claudia’s kitchen, yellow and blue Mediterranean tiles brighten the walls. Roasted red peppers wait in a Cuisinart, and something smooth and eggy bubbles on the stove.
Claudia: This is a ricotta pancake, with ricotta, eggs, and cheese.
Nahanni: It’s called Cassola, and it’s something the Jews of Rome made. Claudia blends the red peppers in the Cuisinart.
Claudia: Well, it’s certainly got a nice color. Now I’ll tell you what we’re eating. This is a pepper sauce to go with fish.
[Stove lighting, fish frying sound]
Claudia: I’m making a fish that actually Moroccans did for Passover.
Nahanni: The Book of Jewish Food includes recipes of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, although most of the book is dedicated to the widely varying cuisines of the Sephardi Jews of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia. She writes that the Ashkenazi world is a cold world, one of chicken fat, onions, cabbage, and potatoes. The Sephardi world is a warm one—of eggplants, rice, figs, olive oil, and orange blossom water.
Nahanni: Claudia was born in Cairo in 1936. Her grandparents were from Turkey and Syria. She shows me a framed photograph from the 1890s of a bearded man in a turban and kaftan.
Claudia: This is my great grandfather, who was the chief rabbi of Aleppo. And at that time, Aleppo was good for the Jews.
Nahanni: Claudia’s family still has a key to the synagogue of Aleppo, which is one of the oldest in the world. This winter it was damaged in the crossfire of Syria’s civil war. The last handful of Jews in Aleppo were evacuated last year. But Claudia’s grandparents left over a hundred years ago, for economic reasons. They were traders, and the opening of the Suez Canal had dried up business along the Silk Road. So they went to Cairo. In those days, people were coming to Cairo from all over the Ottoman world.
Claudia: It was a cosmopolitan country, but the Jewish community itself was a mosaic—of people who came from Iraq, from Iran, from Morocco, from Salonika. So we were used to being part of a mixed community. We didn’t see it as mixed, we just see this is how we are.
Nahanni: Claudia grew up speaking French, Italian, English, and Arabic. Some of her happiest childhood memories are of Passover seders… the food, the huge family gathering. She and her cousins giggled at the irony of celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, because they were still living in Egypt and quite comfortably at the time.
Claudia: For me, it was very happy. Of course it wasn’t so for everyone and it wasn’t so at the end when things turned sour.
Nahanni: The Suez Canal had drawn Claudia’s grandparents to Egypt, and in the end it was a crisis over the Canal that forced her family out. When President Nasser nationalized the Canal in 1956, England, France, and Israel invaded.
Claudia: In retaliation Nasser threw out the British, the French, and the Jews who didn’t have Egyptian passports.
Nahanni: The government also sent many Jews to internment camps, and seized businesses.
Claudia: There was a lot of fear about what is going to happen to us, so people just said, we’ll go. So they left, and they couldn’t take anything. They could take 50 pounds only, in their pocket.
Nahanni: Cairo’s wealthy and tight-knit Jewish community scattered throughout the world. Most of the poorer Jews went to Israel. Claudia’s family came to London.
Claudia: When my parents bought their house in Golders Green, right away the neighbors came and brought flowers.
Nahanni: The neighbors were German Jews. Golders Green was already home to many Jews who had fled persecution in Europe.
Claudia: So my mother was so touched that they brought us flowers that she said will you come for tea. And so my mother made a huge number of things, all things that were our staple. There were sambusak filled with cheese, there were phyllo with spinach, phyllo filled with almonds. [Laughs] And when they came, they were stunned. One of them looked at the table, and she said, “Are you sure you’re Jewish?” She didn’t recognize any food.
Nahanni: Claudia has hung on to that story for a long time. It shows how important food is to identity… and how deeply personal it was for her. Her life in Golders Green was full of Egyptian Jews regrouping after their own Exodus from Egypt. … relatives and childhood friends seemed to always be passing through, on their way to somewhere else, deciding where to settle. It was around this time that Claudia started collecting recipes.
Claudia: And everybody at that time was exchanging recipes. People would say, can you give me your sambusak, and I’ll give you my orange cake, so you can remember me every time you make it. There was this thing—I might never see you again.
Nahanni: They had left behind homes and businesses.
Claudia: That was trauma. But nothing compared to the people that we’ll miss. And something about them, was like the most precious thing you could give was a recipe. I did feel it strongly and I wrote down everything they said, every word.
Nahanni: Claudia has researched and written about the cuisines of many countries and cultures. How does she decide what makes something a Jewish dish? In many places, Jewish cuisine seems just like the local flavor.
Claudia: The Jews didn’t invent it from nowhere. And so there was the Jewish food of Syria... was Syrian. But because the Jews who were kosher didn’t eat in Muslim homes, their food did develop slightly differently.
Nahanni: Jewish dietary laws prohibit mixing dairy and meat, and eating pork and shellfish. Though Sabbath feasting is practically a requirement, cooking on Shabbat is not allowed. Unique cuisines developed within these restrictions.
Claudia: For instance, in Italy and in France, there is Goose salami, Goose prosciutto. So the substitutes was what made it Jewish.
Nahanni: Also, hybrid foods Jews created when they brought traditions from one place to another and adapted them. For example, Portuguese dishes with Indian flavors in the Jewish cuisine of Cochin, and Baghdadi fish cakes served with chutney for Friday night dinner in Calcutta. And when Jews in India lived under the British Raj they started making bread pudding.
Claudia: But they were making bread pudding with coconut milk, not with milk, so that they could eat it after a dinner of meat.
Nahanni: It was like fusion cuisine, before such an idea existed.
Claudia: It was a fusion but it was a fusion that took a big upheaval of populations.
Nahanni: An Iraqi friend once gave Claudia his family recipes. She made an innocent mistake and presented them at a conference about Baghdad. The Baghdadi Jews in the audience were in an uproar.
Claudia: No! We don’t eat this. We don’t eat this… from everywhere. I said, Sammy Daniels told me that. “Sammy Daniels is from Mosul!” This herb we never ever use. You see they were so emotional about a herb.
Nahanni: Claudia tells this story to demonstrate how distinct regional cuisine can be. The Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Mosul each had their own Jewish food. But there’s a ghostlier truth here. Jewish communities flourished in Iraq for more than two thousand years. In the 1920s, Baghdad’s population was a third Jewish... much more Jewish than New York City. Now there are no Jews in Baghdad or Mosul. In the middle of the twentieth century, Jews were forced out of the great Sephardi communities that Claudia writes about: Cairo, Aleppo, Salonika, Tripoli, Fez, and hundreds more. As she says, these are recipes from a vanished world.
Claudia: Do you want to spread it? I think maybe with a fork is easier or better…
Nahanni:Ok, and the spinach is going on top?
Nahanni: Claudia is coaching me through a Turkish Passover dish called sfongo… it’s a spinach pie that uses mashed potatoes instead of phyllo dough. It’s a simple recipe, unlike a lot of traditional cooking that people, mostly women, did.
Claudia: There was so much effort and a lot of the things took a lot of time. And they wanted to take a lot of time because it showed that they cared and they bothered.
Nahanni: Claudia once met a group of elderly Jewish women in Izmir, Turkey who were eager to put their recipes in her care.
Claudia: They were saying, the young Jewish women now aren’t going to cook like we do anymore. They haven’t got time. We’ve got to write it down because we might be the last ones.
Nahanni: Recipes that Claudia helped keep alive are now being cooked in homes and restaurants all over the world… She applauds Israeli chefs who dig into diaspora cuisines to ground their cooking in tradition.
Claudia: If you go and invent just from the air, it’s not a culture it’s not a civilization. It’s something that changes every week. It’s a fashion. Now in America they want to do not potato latkes but zucchini latkes! And I say, “Ok, do the zucchini latkes, but we mustn’t forget the potato latkes!” The Jews have this huge, huge culture to draw from, because they were everywhere.
Claudia: I hope I’ve put enough salt.
Nahanni: Even with all of the historical significance that flavors Claudia’s dishes, when she cooks, she’s focused on the here and now.
Claudia: No, when I cook I think of the people I’m cooking for and how good it is. Voila… Bon appetit.
Nahanni: Bon appetit indeed. Potato and spinach Sfongo from Turkey, Moroccan fish with red pepper sauce, and Cassola, the ricotta cake from Rome. Delicious. For nearly 50 years Claudia Roden has been keeping Jewish traditions alive and helping us put delicious food on our tables. Now, just before we go, here are a couple ideas for your Passover feasts.
Daniel Douek: My name is Daniel Douek, and Claudia Roden is my father’s sister, so she’s my aunt. I spent much of my childhood sitting in Claudia’s kitchen tasting all the stuff that she was cooking.
Daniel: I urge people to make Claudia’s Egyptian charoset recipe, which is basically dates and a sweet wine, and you just cook it for a bit. I would advise against Manischewitz, cause it’s terrible, and instead what I do is to look for really good Italian Marsala wine.
Daniel: So we had the charoset and we had the coconut jam and I never saw it anywhere else. Page 619, here we go. Coconut Jam. And she writes… this jam was made for Passover in Egypt. My mother would give each of us a pot to take home. We wondered every year why we never made it at other times because we loved it so much. So we would take the matzah, put some charoset, put the coconut jam on it, AND put a piece of lamb on top of that. And it’s… I was going to swear there but I won’t… it’s absolutely wonderful. Coconut jam for Pesach. There you go.
Nahanni: That was Daniel Douek, nephew of Claudia Roden, reading from The Book of Jewish Food. Thank you for joining Can We Talk? for our discussion with Claudia Roden.
Nahanni: Our team includes Jewish Women’s Archive Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Director of Engagement Tara Metal. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.
Nahanni: Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk to listen, subscribe and make a donation. To help others find the podcast, please review Can We Talk? on iTunes. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Have a happy and delicious Passover.
[Theme Music fades]