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.
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