Cookbooks that offer more than kitchen recipes
LONDON - “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” and “Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen” by Claudia Roden and Yasmin Khan, respectively, provide a penetrating insight into the culture and conflicts of the Middle East in addition to a varied selection of recipes.
Both books have a strong, personal dimension, are meticulously researched and take advantage of the authors having developed numerous contacts in the Middle East.
Roden became a refugee when the Egyptian government expelled the Jewish minority in October 1956, following the invasion by Britain, France and Israel during the Suez crisis.
She began collecting recipes while in exile in London, focusing on the food her family ate in Egypt and exchanging recipes with other refugees. Roden later extended her collection to recipes from Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Israel.
“Their cooking is inextricably linked,” Roden says in the introduction to her collection.
At the book launch at London’s Asia House, she recalled that, when she was growing up, there were no Middle Eastern cookbooks. Recipes were handed down from generation to generation.
When she started writing in the 1960s people despised the idea of food from the Arab world. “They would ask me is it eyeballs and testicles? But we have such a rich culture. I had to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes,” Roden said.
Khan, of Pakistani-Iranian origin, was an activist whose work took her to Israel and the West Bank in 2009 while working for a British human rights charity. “It wasn’t the easiest of trips,” she recalls in the introduction to her book. “Nothing prepares you for seeing the physical apparatus of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank at close hand: the checkpoints, the walls, the soldiers, the refugee camps.
“But the evenings brought respite. As night fell, my troubled mind was distracted by my greedy stomach. Deep bowls of thick hummus arrived at the dining table, rich with tahini, smooth as silk. Smoky aubergines, roasted over charcoal and smothered over with garlic and lemon, had me reaching for a third helping. I came back from the West Bank convinced I’d never tasted such flavoursome produce. I’ve travelled through Israel and the West Bank three times since, each journey teaching more about the flavours and fragrances of the Palestinian table and the realities of everyday Palestinian life.”
Khan combines recipes with travelogue and insightful observations about the political situation. In Jerusalem, she met Jamal Jum’a, the coordinator of Stop the Wall, an umbrella group of organisations that campaign against Israel’s Separation Wall.
“How can you stay so upbeat, I asked, given the situation you see here every day? Jamal smiled and reached for the lamb pieces that we had trimmed of fat, gently placing chunks of them in the hot broth, one at a time. ‘I stay hopeful because I believe apartheid will eventually be defeated because history tells us it is not the norm,’ he said.
“He dropped the final piece of lamb into the pot, reduced the heat so the stew could cook on a gentle simmer and firmly placed the lid on. ‘Remember Yasmin,’ he said turning to face me, ‘walls don’t last forever.’”
Roden’s book is scholarly as she traces the history of Middle Eastern cuisine. There is a lot of interesting information about folklore, myth and religion. “It is related that Adam was suffering from pain and complained to God. Gabriel descended from heaven with an olive tree and presented it to Adam and told him to plant it, to pick the fruit, to extract the oil and use it whenever he had pain, assuring him it would cure all ills.”
Speaking about food and identity, Roden said people tend to stick to their own food. “They want to cook what their mothers cooked. There is a very strong identity of place. Even one pickle that is special makes you feel you belong somewhere. As a Jewish food writer, going into the Arab and Muslim world opens doors. I was in Baalbek in Lebanon where I went to a wedding and people were asking questions about food with broad smiles. Food brings people together.”
Khan noticed that, in the Palestinian territories, each village was proud of its culinary traditions, emphasising “that is how we cook here.”
Turning to the blockade of Gaza, which she campaigned against, Khan mentioned that the culinary traditions were under threat. It is difficult for Gazans to fish and prepare traditional fish dishes.
“There is a lot of strife in the Middle East at present but there is also a lot of joy: friends meet, people go out, get married. I reached a lot more people through my cookbook than through my years of campaigning. It shows the power of stories and recipes.”