An Arabian night (in Borough Market)

The Borough Belles were delighted to be invited to the latest Borough Talks and here Belle Louise Guthrie recounts Claudia Roden’s influence on our national eating habits

Give me your orange cake recipe. I’m never going to see you again, but at least I’ll have something to remember you by…


How could I ever forget you?

A quaint and romantic request by today’s standards (and maybe a little unnecessary in the modern digital world), but for 1936-born food-writer Claudia Roden, the simple act of passing on your most treasured recipe has been both a career and life-defining notion.

Journalist Boyd Tonkin is openly delighted to be interviewing her tonight in front of an audience, admitting it’s an extra-special treat to talk to a food-writer. If you interview an artist they are not going produce a painting on the spot. If you interview a novelist, they are not going to pen you (even a short) story. But if you interview a cookbook writer, might you not reasonably expect them to concoct you a little something? Okay, maybe not, it would be a bit unreasonable of us all to trample right into recipe legend Claudia Roden’s London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb kitchen. Besides, what better way is there to hold a discussion on proper food, than happily ensconced right here under Borough Market’s hallowed and familiar roof?

No cooking, just conversation.

While reading the section on kibbeh in a signed copy of her ‘Middle Eastern Food’ might be almost as good as eating one (try it and see), it would stir up more hunger pangs than it could ultimately satisfy. Mercifully, a group of local traders are waiting patiently in the wings to offer us a glass of wine and food tasters after tonight’s talk.

But even if you haven’t yet dipped into one of Claudia’s scrumptious 20 volumes of food-writing (spanning decades and large slices of the globe), you have probably already felt a little of the Roden effect.

Those of us old enough to remember pre-hummus Britain won’t be too surprised to learn that we can thank this lady here in front us for the fact that it’s now in every supermarket. For those too young to have lived through it, yes, there really was a time when hardly anyone on this sceptred isle had heard of glorious chickpea and tahini blend. Back then those familiar with the word humus (with one ‘m’) thought it was a soil component. The word “courgette” still had to be explained (“it’s like a baby marrow”). No-one yet knew how to cook an aubergine, and bread with a pouch (pitta) was considered anatomically impossible.

But even if we Brits have traditionally always been a little insular, most of us did try those Marks & Spencer’s stuffed vine leaves when they first came out. And it’s no coincidence that the ingredients listed on the M&S packets matched those in one of Claudia’s own cookbooks word for word. So no, “This is not just M&S food…”

In fact, it’s probably no exaggeration to say Claudia Roden’s 1968 ‘Book of Middle Eastern Food’ has irreversibly changed the way a sizeable section of British society eats (for the better!)

Claudia started life in Cairo, Egypt, completing her formal education in Paris, before moving to London to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art. But the seeds (or should that be crushed beans?) of her career were sown long before a grown-up Claudia marched into London’s British Museum requesting to see Arab cookbooks – probably not something they’d ever been asked.

Paris schoolgirl Claudia was given a plate of ful medames’ – ‘ful being a commonplace Egyptian national dish. But what were just boring old beans at home in Egypt suddenly became exotic fare in Paris “with all the glories and warmth of Cairo, our home town, and the embodiment of all that for which we were homesick.” Claudia learned early on in life that the taste of a stew or a soup (yes, even those good old mushed-up brown beans) contains not just its ingredients but a whole realm of history, culture and, above all, stories.

And if every picture tells a story, then nothing brings a tale to life like a brilliant recipe. If skilfully harnessed, magical cookery techniques and an alchemic combination of ingredients can conjure up tastes, textures, smells, sights, and sounds to capture all five of your senses. Add a dash of (maybe memory-evoking) ritual and the whole experience will virtually transport you to a place (or time) like nothing else quite can. (If you can actually manage to get hold of the correct formula, sorry, recipe)

Claudia Roden, a food pioneer and researcher by nature, was always going to go and track down* exotic sustenance that would otherwise have remained elusive to the masses (*and not just in the British Library!) In travelling, she became not just a professional foodie, but (by default) a cultural anthropologist.

Food carries with it the history of culture and civilisation, from the microcosm of family life to the wider macrocosm of a whole nation defined. Prior to the days of mass publication (and long before the advent of the world-wide web), local fare defined regions within nations as strongly as folks’ own unique accents. With so much gastronomic history to explore, and so many methods and instructions to collect, Claudia needed no better staple excuse for a nice bit of travel (and scholarly research) beyond the extensive pursuit of food, glorious food. “I had this feeling I had to taste food in the country where it was born” she confides. So that is what she did, writing about it lyrically, her recipes interspersed with her own sweet (and savoury) recollections and some swoony Arabic (or other assorted) myths.

No-one knows better than she does that food is communal, building bridges, forging and cementing friendships – even bonding people together long-term. Claudia relates how some cherished Middle Eastern family recipes are so jealously guarded that mothers will pass them on to their daughters, but never (ever) to their daughters-in-law. How else can they ensure their precious son comes home regularly?

With some of the best concoctions on the planet being classified family (never mind state!) information, how do you manage to unearth and amass enough gastronomic gold to produce big thick delicious volumes of food-knowledge?

You cast your net as widely as possible. Claudia would ask everyone she got into conversation with on her travels for their favourite recipe, and follow this enquiry up with a host of other questions. “I ask them where their parents were from, and their grandparents, and how they lived. I want to build up a picture. I want to get into people’s lives.”

Sometimes the best opportunities arise by chance. Claudia met an Indian gent in Australia who whisked her off to his own preferred lunch-club down under (NB We don’t know whether she ever met an Australian diner in India!)

But with titles as diverse as ‘The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to The Present Day’, and ‘The Food of Italy’, or how about ‘The Complete Guide to Outdoor Food’, not forgetting ‘Coffee: A Connoisseur’s Companion’, there’s something in Roden’s works to tempt not only adventurous diners, but also to entice more reticent taste-buds further away from home.

In this evening’s closing Q&A session, Claudia Roden waxes lyrical with a focus and vivacity that belies her age. What can traditionalists earn from innovators (and vice-versa)? The Old School can learn better ways to deep-fry, boil, and use new techniques to create a sauce with no lumps. Current trendsetters can invent new stuff by taking their inspiration from traditional elements and applying a little modern twist on conventional methods.

Should you adhere to exact measurements or wing it with cup-sized approximations? The makeup of ingredients can fluctuate, she tells us. After all, depending on the wheat crop, different flour batches can absorb varying quantities of water….

A drop of fuel (Turkish Coffee) for the road?

We could listen to Claudia Roden for at least another hour (before the hunger pangs become unbearable). But it’s time to wrap things up with a cheeky glass of red wine (or would you prefer a crisp white?) How about some fresh egg pasta with wild boar, followed by Turkish coffee and baklava with walnut? Do finish off with a chunk of lemon Turkish Delight. Do you fancy some spicy Borough Market olives to take home? The local traders do themselves proud with their wares. As the light begins to fade through the glass market-place roof-top, and we start to head for the hills (or rather trickle home!), we all feel it’s been a culinary journey.