Claudia Roden and the power of food

The legendary cookbook author Claudia Roden has inspired many a hip chef, and is highly regarded the world over as a speaker about culinary traditions. Yet her parents had very different plans for her. In issue 36, she talks about her past, present and future.

“I’m independent and people often call me strong. That is why they assume I was a rebellious child, when in fact I was good. Too good. I did everything my parents wanted. It was because I loved them and I thought that’s how you had to be.

I grew up in Cairo, Egypt, in a very prudish society. We were Jews from the Muslim world and also Syrians, who were more prudish than anybody else, especially the women. I was protected, never went out without my parents or nanny, never took the tram or the bus.

We lived on a little island. Every day, my two brothers and I would walk to the park with Maria, our Slovenian-Italian nanny. As a young girl, she had been a novice nun and she would take us to the Catholic church nearby, so I was used to different religions.

Reminders of Egypt

My parents spoke French with us and weren’t strict but at the same time, they were very conventional. My brothers learned Hebrew through the prayers in the synagogue; I had to sit with the women. And despite her traditional attitude, my mother had very ambitious ideas for me. I had to be the best at school and also at swimming. I was champion of Egypt at one time.

The flavors of my youth are diverse. Because Maria cooked polenta and pasta for us, I still have a soft spot for Italian food. Also, the smell of coriander frying with garlic makes me emotional. It reminds me of Egypt.

One of my grandparents was from Istanbul, the other three were from Aleppo. The trade there was killed after the Suez Canal opened at the end of the 19th century, so they moved to Cairo, like many other merchants from the Ottoman Empire. The city was cosmopolitan, with minorities speaking different languages and cooking different dishes. My grandparents ate kibbeh, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh… Our home would smell of cinnamon, cardamom, sumac and cumin.

My mother and grandmother didn’t cook—that was left to the cook, who lived on the roof terrace. But when people came over, aunts would bring their own cooks and they would all contribute. The women sat in the living room, making stuffed vine leaves or little filos, while the cooks did all the preparations. The children were allowed to taste things and were given small tasks, like rolling dough to make ka’ak, a crisp, ring-shaped cookie.

Eye-opener

When I was fifteen, I went to boarding school in the UK. I missed my big extended family and had nothing in common with the upper-class girls who would talk about balls and being presented to the queen. I felt totally unhappy.

Luckily, soon after that I moved to Paris, France, where my older brother was a medical student and my younger brother and I became boarders. That was an extremely wonderful experience. It was 1952, soon after WWII, and the young people in France were very political and leftwing. They were interested in philosophy, communism. It was an eye-opener.

Every Sunday, I went to visit my older cousin, who was married to an Egyptian girl my age. He made ful medames for us: mashed fava beans seasoned with herbs and lemon juice, and served with hard-boiled eggs. What used to be a cheap, everyday dish in Egypt suddenly became a delicacy that triggered memories and embodied all that I was nostalgic for.

For the first time, I experienced the power of food.”

  • Read the rest of Claudia’s past, present and future in issue 36.

Text Eveline Stoel Photography Hari Nandakumar

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