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Bringing Egypt and Israel together on the plate

In the first of a series on the stars of the Jewish food world, Victoria Prever visits Claudia Roden

    Pioneer: Claudia Roden
    Pioneer: Claudia Roden

    As someone raised on chopped liver, cholent and chicken soup, I've always found Sephardi recipes exciting. Ashkenazi food offers starch and comfort - carbs to fuel you through a snowdrift. Sephardi food is sexier.

    Claudia Roden introduced many of us to the food of the Middle East 40 years ago. Her seminal book, Middle Eastern Food, brought colour, spice and a raft of new flavours to many a bland English kitchen and kicked off our love affair with the food of the Middle East. Her Book of Jewish Food, published in 1997, was the result of 16 years of research.

    Like her books, she brims with stories of the cultural background and ethnography of her recipes. I spent a morning at her North London home of 35 years talking over coffee and Tortas de Aceite - Spanish olive oil biscuits. Her kitchen is simple, appearing to have changed little since the 1970s. The one incongruous extravagance is a huge shiny new oven bought only when her last one gave in.

    Her memories of growing up in a Cairo suburb are as colourful as a holiday brochure; a charmed existence in a tight-knit Jewish community. She swam daily, holding the Egyptian national swimming record for backstroke, and spent summers with her friends and family at country clubs. "Our whole life in Egypt was about entertaining. Each woman would jealously guard her recipes as they were judged on the quality of their food." Recipes emanated from the wide variety of different cultures. Claudia's family were Syrian and Turkish Jews.

    Aged 15, she left for school in Paris where her brother required medical treatment. She was a pupil at a French Lycee Pilôte, a state Lycee, where her contemporaries included Jewish girls orphaned by the Holocaust. The school was the site of many innovative trials, including three-course meals with watered down wine.

    Grapefruit, red onion and olive salad
    Grapefruit, red onion and olive salad

    When her family left Egypt for good after Suez, they struggled with the loss of their community.

    Roden's efforts to compile the recipes of the dishes she'd eaten as a child were an attempt to recover a flavour of what she had lost, to retain her mother culture.

    There were no cookery books. Each family had their own recipes, and many could have been lost. "They were closely guarded family secrets," she said. "But we all missed the closeness of our community and this was a way of retaining something of it."

    Her recipes have inspired scores of others. The Orange and Almond cake recipe is synonymous with Roden. It is, she says, her most copied. A version is sold by Pret a Manger, credited to Nigella Lawson. Roden is flattered.

    Roden's recipe was Syrian, having been taken by the Jews from Spain in the 15th century.

    I asked what she serves with it. Her answer: to serve me a plateful of sliced oranges soaked in a syrup of marmalade and sweet sherry and a dollop of crème fraiche. It was sweet, juicy and refreshing.

    This week, Penguin publish a selection of recipes from her original work entitled Middle Eastern Feast as part of their GREAT FOOD series.

    In her 70s, when many would be slowing down, she remains one of the UK's most highly acclaimed cookery writers and a doyenne of Jewish cooking.

    She is off to New York for the US launch of her forthcoming book on Spain (to be published here in 2013), to Amsterdam to publicise another book and in July she will co-chair the Oxford Symposium on Food.

    Roden wrote the recipe below for a collection entitled "Celebrations contributed to by regular attendees of the Symposium to celebrate their 30th anniversary".

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