Claudia Roden’s education started at an early age. Raised in Cairo, she grew up watching the women of her family pound lamb and wheat into kibbeh, and wrap delicate sheets of pastry around mashed dates. Over the years, she’s made her way into countless kitchens, from Turkey to Poland, Lebanon to Spain, and written several histories of Mediterranean cuisine, most recently, Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon.
In 1996, after 15 years of research, she wrote the book on Jewish food—literally. Her genre-busting The Book of Jewish Food weaves 800 recipes into a vast narrative of the Diaspora, from the chicken dumplings created by the Jews of Tibet to the almond cake favored by Jews of Italy.
This week, we make our way into Claudia’s kitchen in London. She talks with reporter Hugh Levinson about her search for melokheya, the truth behind British take-out, and the culinary acrobatics of today’s most innovative chefs.
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Here’s what Claudia Roden cooked up for Hugh Levinson.
Poulet aux Dates
(Chicken with Dates)
6 chicken quarters
4 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil
2 large onions, 1 lb (500 g), coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and plenty of black pepper
1/2 lb (250 g) dates, pitted
Juice of 1/2 – 1 lemon
A pinch of saffron
1/2 cup (100 g) blanched almonds, toasted or fried
In a large pan, sauté the chicken pieces in the oil for a few minutes, until lightly colored, turning them over once. Remove them and put the onions in. Cook them on low heat until soft, then stir in the cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, and honey, and pour in about 1 3/4 cups (400 ml) of water. Stir well and put in the chicken pieces. Bring to the boil, add salt and pepper, and simmer for 25 minutes. Now add the dates, lemon juice, and saffron and cook for another 5—10 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. It is important to taste and adjust the seasoning, for the right balance of flavors is a delicate matter in this dish. It usually needs plenty of black pepper to counteract the sweetness. Serve with the almonds sprinkled on.
Salade de Tomates et Poivrons Grillés
(Grilled Tomato and Pepper Salad)
3 red or green bell peppers
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1—2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Broil or roast the peppers and tomatoes. Take the tomatoes out after about 10 minutes, when the skin is loosened and they are only a little soft. Peel the peppers and tomatoes and cut them into pieces. Dress with oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper.
For a flavorsome Moroccan version, add 2—3 chopped garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon cumin, the chopped peel of 1 preserved lemon, and 1—2 hot chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped. If you have an opportunity to buy the rare argan oil, it is wonderful with this, as well as with most salads.
You may grill or roast a head of garlic at the same time, then peel the cloves. Garlic needs 10 minutes in the oven to become soft.
Photo: Red Saunders, courtesy of Knopf.