A Book of Middle Eastern Food (Penguin, 1970) hooked me on Claudia Roden’s writing 25 years ago. Roden doesn’t just give recipes; she shares stories and memories and facts that leave you with a richer understanding of the food. As an Egyptian Jew living outside her native country since the Suez Crisis in 1956, Roden writes with an exile’s appreciation for what one has lost, and you can tell as she describes orange blossom water anddukkah (the Egyptian spice blend) and the way Egyptians make rice as compared with the way Persian, Lebanese, and Syrian cooks do, that food is the way she holds on to her culture. In The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (revised in 1985), she writes, “The history of this food is that of the Middle East. Dishes carry the triumphs and glories, the defeats, the loves and sorrows of the past.” You can’t help but read this and wonder if she’s speaking not only of the Middle East but also of her own broken heart.
When I cook alone, I blast some music and tango with my knives and whisks, so I assumed that the title of her most recent book, Arabesque (Knopf, 2006), was an invitation to a kind of culinary dance in which you learn the steps, then intentionally forget them. In this book, which features the cuisines of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon, she asks her readers to first learn and honor the traditions, but then to trust their intuition and cook confidently without rules. In the summer, I do a little turn with her mashed eggplant and tomato salad, often adding smoked paprika, mint, or even some toasted sesame seeds. We keep a bowl of this in the fridge at home and serve it with everything from eggs to fish to mozzarella sandwiches. In my family, Roden’s recipes are now part of our culinary story. _—Jody Adams, Rialto, Cambridge, Massachusetts _