The New Book of Middle-Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

January 16, 2010  • 

This review is about the first cookbook I ever read on middle-eastern cuisine; my mother had bought it thirty years ago and handed it to me when I moved to the States. It was originally published in 1968 but has been revised since. There has been hundreds of books written about various middle-eastern cuisines since, but in my mind this one is a landmark.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE BOOK:

 


 

 

 

 

  • On a personal note, Mrs Roden, who grew up in Egypt in  a Sephardic Jewish family, describes a certain lifestyle in Egypt that I  could relate to; I had heard about it  growing up. My dad is from the same generation as Mrs Roden and he too grew up in Cairo and  Alexandria in that same time period. I  heard  my whole life how magnificent life was in Egypt in those days ( prior to Nasser’s revolution);  how cosmopolitan Cairo was, how chic all the clubs, restaurants and beaches; about Groppi and their ice-cream parlor, about the beautiful boulevards lined with three-storied villas.  My dad’s friends in those days were Greeks and Sephardic Jews. Greeks formed the largest foreign community in Egypt. Sephardic Jews were fully integrated into Egyptian society. At my dad’s home, French, Italian, Greek, Armenian and Egyptian Arabic were spoken. Egypt was thepearl of the middle-east. Egypt was the happening spot in the arab world!
  • No one until Mrs. Roden came along, had taken such pains to describe middle-eastern cuisine. She delved into ancient medieval books I did not even know existed, such as al-Baghdadi’s written in 1204; she quoted  Arab folktales such asGoha stories , songs and proverbs; she researched the origin of dishes, studying books written by scholars like Maxime Rodinson; she did not leave one stone unturned.
  • Mrs Roden combines her recipes with a story explaining the customs and traditions related to a dish. Her chapter on kibbeh describes it as a the national dish and glory of the Syrians and Lebanese; how some women are known to have a special “finger” for kibbeh; she goes on to describe variations on its method of preparation, with matzo meal for Sephardic Jews or  ground rice in Egypt.
  • She includes Greek, Turkish,  Persian, Armenian and Sephardic Jewish  recipes in her book, because of the  presence of these communities in the arab world.
  • All her recipes are mouthwatering and accurate; she knows what she is talking about! She lived there! There is a huge difference in a cookbook written by someone who visited a place for a month and someone who was actually a part of that society. She knows what the important dishes are! For instance, she describes the traditional way of making yoghurt which is exactly the way my grandmother used.
  • This 500-page book is peppered with charming drawings and anecdotes which makes reading it very enjoyable.

WHAT I DID NOT LIKE ABOUT THE BOOK:

  • A book of that scope cannot go into depth with every cuisine; therefore, some dishes are omitted or explained succinctly which may frustrate a reader.

Comments

19 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. Peter says:

    Another good read, Joumana. There are many Hellenes from Egypt who left for many reasons. They have dear memories there and I can only imagine how fab the feasts must have been with the melting pot of influences.

  2. maninas says:

    This book is on my wish list. I have her Arabesque, and I adore it. It’s informative, engaging, delicious!

  3. Rosa says:

    I own and love this great book!

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  4. rebecca says:

    cool she sounds like a Middle Eastern Julia Child, looks like a great book lol, oh and I am a chocoholic as well eek1=!!!

  5. northshorewoman says:

    thank you, Joumana, for this interesting walk into your patrilineal line, pre-Nasserite Egypt, more fascinating lore on Middle Eastern cooking, and the Sephardic interpretation of Arabic/Middle Eastern cooking. I have been meaning to buy Jayyusi’s 1000 page tome on Islamic Spain, and I am sure she will discuss the Jewish peoples there and their intersections with Arab peoples, which will teach me a lot. I also need to learn more about the Greek presence in Lebanon!–snippets of which I am discovering from you. Thank you.

    I loved your post; I remember when I was first married x number of years ago that it was very, very difficult to find any cookbooks in English. I will go rummage through my old books and see what I can find.

    thanks for an inspiring post. hugs from Canada

  6. sophia says:

    I’ve seen that book around always in the library, but never really thought to pick it up. Thanks for the review! I’ll really have to check it out now!

  7. shayma says:

    joumana, this book is my bible. i learnt how to cook food from your part of the world from a Syrian lady whom I have long lost touch with- every time i want to double check smthg, Claudia Roden’s book is there for reference. i just adore it. i love how she has basic soup recipes in it- from Turkey to Armenia. Such a talent and joy she is. i loved your review so much, and took your cons re her book into consideration, too. best wishes, shayma

  8. Doria says:

    Merci pour la présentation de ce livre que tu me fais découvrir !
    Je te souhaite une bonne soirée, Doria

  9. Dave Riley says:

    I bought my first copy in 1971 and have worn out maybe three purchases of the same text ever since. I must have cooked every recipe at least once. For me the very best, most essential cook book ever as it has supported me for almost 40 years cooking for my family, friends and catering for large dinners of 100 guests and more.

    Its’ also a food philosophy and history book which locates food in a rich cultural tradition.

    It is shallow on the present fashion for Moroccan food and it has a limited discussion of the cuisine of Iran which has its own culinary differences. But a landmark? Most definitely One of the few great classic cook book masterpieces.

    It is also not very specific in way of Lebanon I think …

  10. chrisbryon says:

    I own and love this great book!….

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  13. socialite says:

    Good thread. Cheers!!

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