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Food and drink

Middle Eastern food flight - Breaking down time, geography and stereotypes

I was visiting with an old friend the other day and, over a fine impromptu lunch, we ended up talking about favourite food writers.

The context was that food, given its double-barreled status of primality and universality, can be a metaphor to delve into nearly any old whim, be it political, cultural, sociological, anthropological or just plain fun.

I mentioned that two of my favourites were the eclectic M.F.K. Fisher and the more contemporary Michael Pollan. I like Fisher because she liked to shake people up with her cooking, dubbed by her ex-husband as her cuisine personnelle . She would then turn around and use food in her writing as an entry point into everything from World War II politics to her families’ quirks and, in her later years, death.

Pollan, of An Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire best-seller fame, is an equally dynamic and accessible writer who can have you regarding food from polar-opposite perspectives, and in ways seldom considered. What about we humans as personal caterers to plants’ desires? Or the natural history of a Chicken McNugget laid out at your feet?

My friend Mark’s favourite is Claudia Roden, and while I think I’m modestly well informed about food and cooking and writings about same, I drew a blank at the mention of her name. This, apparently, is as culturally revealing as other manifestations of my Canadian-ness.

Born to a Jewish family in Cairo, Roden later moved to London where she became a writer of substantial and much deserved acclaim. This partially explains her greater fame and popularity with Europeans and Englishmen of a certain persuasion, like my pal who hails, as does composer Benjamin Britten, from Lowestoft, the easternmost town in Britain.

Sadly for us, Roden is not so well known this side of the Atlantic, with the exception of those steeped in the culinary arts no matter which side of the great pond they come from, including Nigella “The Domestic Goddess/Celebrity” Lawson, who also happens to be from England.

Lawson penned a glowing endorsement for Roden’s most recent book, the award-winning 2005 Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, in which she re-visits the cuisines explored in her first book to see how they’ve evolved since the 1960s.

But Lawson’s comments pale in comparison to this one by historian and former New Yorker art/cultural critic, Simon Schama: “Claudia Roden is no more a simple cookbook writer than Marcel Proust was a biscuit baker. She is, rather, memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet…” I laughed aloud at the image of Proust as biscuit baker.

And this from the Observer , for which Roden writes occasionally, when she is not busy on a new book, or a cooking show for the likes of BBC: “Claudia Roden’s writing has the fascination of her conversation. Her books are treasure houses of information and mines of literary pleasure.” If that doesn’t get you headed to the library for a copy of her latest book, I don’t know what will.

Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food , the first of her 10 books, was published in 1968. It pretty much revolutionized the way Western/white/Anglo people thought about Middle Eastern cuisine and culture. And we aren’t just talking about how to cook couscous properly or make a good tagine , although her recipe for the latter made me an instant convert.

Morocco was the first place I got out of my cultural, Canadian skin, at the tender age of 19. After surviving rocks thrown at us as we tried to find the Canadian embassy in Rabat (one cracked open my girlfriend’s forehead), a plethora of delights unfolded, including the taste of tagine , a delicious chicken stew, that was cooked in a traditional clay tagine cooker over an open fire on a white sand Moroccan beach.

It still resonates to this day — I can even picture the drooling camels that surrounded the fire, waiting patiently in the background.

I’ve been searching for a tagine (pronounced ta-jeen ) recipe for years, one that is authentic and hasn’t been watered down to suit Western tastes or gussied up to impress some food critic or fusion-addicted guests who think everything should taste of a bit of something else. I’m further comforted by Mark’s remark that Roden is “meticulous about her recipes.”

So here she delivers not one but three tagine recipes, one the basic chicken stew with chick peas, one with prunes, and another with fruit, which can include the wonderful quince that was the “apple” of my eye last week.

Another wonderful thing about Roden’s book is that some of the recipes she collects harken back to medieval days. It’s lovely to think that you’ve transcended time by eating a dish very close to one enjoyed by a Moroccan or Turk or Persian from long ago.

And Roden’s recipes don’t stand in isolation. She offers bits of travelogues, family anecdotes, riddles and glimpses into the cultural context of the food: in some parts of the Middle East, fish is still believed to have magical properties; it takes a very special occasion to kill a lamb, so chicken is the dish of choice for most festive occasions. (One 12th century account noted over 500 recipes for chicken.)

“Sayings of Muhammad in the Quran, folk proverbs, religious, mystical and superstitious beliefs set up rules of social savoir-vivre to the minutest detail,” she writes in A Book of Middle Eastern Food . “Sweetly tyrannical, immutable and indisputable rules of civility and manners…

“People entertain warmly and joyously. To persuade a friend to stay for lunch is a triumph and a precious honour.”

This cookbook and its many offerings that crack open the sad Middle Eastern stereotypes we are awash in today is also something of a triumph and a precious honour. Now I can’t wait to get my hands on some of Roden’s other books — Coffee: A Connoisseur’s Companion or her landmark The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York — to see what modern myths they deconstruct, and what humanity they bring to life.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who grows fresh spearmint exclusively to make Moroccan-style mint tea loaded with sugar.