Claudia Roden: Why cooking is key to happiness
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Claudia Roden: Why cooking is key to happiness

The culinary icon reveals how cooking during lockdown has brought her family and friends closer together

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

A selection of sharing plates by Claudia Roden. Credit: The Great Big Jewish Food Fest / Claudia Roden
A selection of sharing plates by Claudia Roden. Credit: The Great Big Jewish Food Fest / Claudia Roden

Baked rice with currants and chickpeas, a tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and olives, roast shoulder of lamb with couscous and date stuffing and, for the sweet-toothed, rice pudding with apricot compote.

It all looks and sounds delicious enough and the taste is doubtless divine, but when it comes to rustling up her favourite recipes, cooking for Claudia Roden is as much about “giving love” as it is in getting the right balance of flavours.

The celebrated author, best known for introducing Britain to Middle Eastern cuisine and her watershed work, The Book of Jewish Food, has long enjoyed researching into the roots and rituals and recording of exotic dishes handed down through the generations, but so too has she come to understand the therapeutic benefits of cooking.

In short, that food really is good for the soul.

It’s a more than apt topic to discuss during Mental Health Awareness Week, and just ahead of her virtual session next Monday evening for The Great Big Jewish Food Fest, a 10-day online celebration of Jewish cuisine through workshops, demonstrations and interviews.

Speaking from her north London home, Roden, 84, tells me that even living on her own during lockdown has not stopped her from enjoying what she loves most.

The Cairo-born writer tells me: “I still do cook for myself and I feel it’s therapeutic. If I just spend my time looking on the computer, or writing, I miss it terribly. And so I do cook.

“Cooking is also wonderful for people living with their family or in a group. You cook together and you cook for each other. For whoever is cooking, it’s really a way of giving love, giving comfort, and so there is a real emotional connection with food.”

In recent months, Roden has been busy researching, collating and devising recipes for her new book of Mediterranean dishes, which will be published next year.

Right now, she’s in the process of testing, with her family and friends around the world all trying out her creations – and she’s noticed that while lockdown has largely kept everyone apart, cooking has uniquely brought them all together.

“I want them to test the recipes, not only because I want to know how much they like them – and they have to be absolutely wonderful to go in the book – but also it’s warming to see everyone communicating with each other, talking about which dishes they have tried and how it was for them,” she enthuses.

“There’s so much that is frightening about the news at the moment, that to talk about something light and that gives happiness is a joy. It’s a relief.”

As for her go-to “soul foods” that help her feel better, Roden simply laughs, explaining she has collated so many recipes – possibly into the thousands – that it’s hard for her to pick any particular favourite.

“I was looking just now at a Spanish book for a recipe and I had forgotten just how marvellous that dish was, so I’m constantly reminded of my ‘favourites’.

“The dishes that really make me happy however, are when someone cooks a recipe that my mother made or that we cooked in Egypt. Then I feel very touched, very moved.

“Because of my work, I travel and go to restaurants all over the world and it’s wonderful to see what they have made out of home cooking, how they have transformed it and made it grand.

“But equally, if I were in someone’s kitchen and they made the simplest thing for me, that’s something I will remember forever.”

Her sense of nostalgia is, after all, what brought Roden into the world of writing cookery books.

Claudia Roden is credited with putting Sephardi cuisine on the map. Photo: Barbara Steinbauer-Gretsch

Arriving in London in the early 1950s, she never forgot the beloved cuisine of her childhood, but following the mass exodus of Egypt’s Jewish community after the Suez Crisis in 1956, realised a trove of traditional recipes handed down through generations could be lost forever – and set about on a mission to collect them all.

“There were no cookbooks in Egypt, none at all. The mothers passed on recipes through the family and if they were well-to-do, they had a cook – and the women taught them the recipes as well.

“But I didn’t just write an Egyptian cookbook, because the community was really a mosaic of Jewish communities and had come from all over the Ottoman world.

“For instance, three of my grandparents came from Syria and one from Istanbul, and we had relatives who had come from Morocco, Tunisia and Salonika [Thessaloniki]. When they came to Egypt, they kept up their recipes, because it was a badge of their identity.”

The resulting book published in 1968, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, firmly placed Sephardi food on the culinary map – surprisingly even in Israel where, until her book arrived, “people didn’t value their cuisine, because Middle Eastern culture at that time was considered backward”.

She adds with a laugh: “I’ve even had chefs in Israel come up and tell me they first learnt Sephardi cooking from my book.

“Today, of course, our cuisine is valued and when people cook it, they are not just making food – they are connecting to their heritage. They are part of something.”

Tea Time: Celebrating Claudia Roden’s Culinary Legacy with Leah Koenig takes place on Monday, 25 May, 8pm (UK time) as part of The Great Big Jewish Food Fest. To see the full schedule and book a place, visit www.jewishfoodfest.org

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