The world has come to London this week for that carnival celebrating all that is great and good in the sporting world -- the Olympics. And yet, for the past few decades the world has already gravitated to Stratford, East London.
Newham and Tower Hamlets, the host boroughs for the Olympic Games; they are some of the most multicultural areas of Great Britain. In Newham only a third of the population is ethnically Caucasian. The remaining two-thirds are ethnically Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Caribbean, African, Chinese and more.
Maybe many visitors to Stratford will find a local speaking their own language to give them directions to the nearest metro station or bus stop. Maybe they will see people dressed like them, or hear their own music playing from cars that pass by. Certainly they will be able to find their own food somewhere on the main street or in the shopping mall, as Stratford High Street boasts a wide range of ethnic cuisine from Thai to Mexican, from Indian to Moroccan.
I remember as a child walking through the market in Brixton, in South London, seeing what seemed to me exotic fruits and vegetables such as sweet potato, guava, okra and eggplant. My father was of a generation that preferred roast beef, carrots, potatoes and gravy to foreign ingredients, so my mother didn’t know what to do in the kitchen with garlic and red peppers, let alone mangoes, lychees, kumquats and jalapenos. The markets where my Caribbean friends’ mothers shopped seemed so exciting.
If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to understanding the heart of a people must surely be through understanding their food and cooking and enjoying and participating in their food culture.
There is a caricature of tourists who, when traveling abroad, choose a hotel that provides them with the same food they are used to back home -- “None of this foreign food for me.” Now, I love the occasional indulgence in visiting a British fish and chips restaurant, or finding a place on the tourist coast of Turkey that offers a full English breakfast, but there is a whole wide range of wonderful Turkish food on offer day in, day out all around me.
A young American lady who came to Turkey for a month’s internship wrote this comment to me this week: “One great way to experience culture is to eat their food! I have enjoyed this greatly in Turkey, because Turkish food is fantastic! When traveling abroad, it can be easy to stick to the things that are familiar, especially when choosing meals for the day. If I had done that, then I would have never discovered how delicious Antakya’s künefe is, or how a Turkish tea is perfect at the end of a good meal. If I had quit trying Turkish food after my first taste of ayran (which I didn’t enjoy!) then I would have never enjoyed dürüms, kebabs and the delicious tavuk sote.”
Wondering why food seems to define a people, and explain their heart, I concluded that it is both a shaping factor and a uniting factor. People are shaped by their environment. The food of a nation is dependent on what crops grow locally, and so the food and people are equally shaped by their land. But eating is also a social activity, with families and groups of friends meeting around the meal table; in sharing common food, they are sharing common values.
In this month of Ramadan there is a great emphasis on lovely food. Cooks want to spread a variety of mouth-watering dishes before their loved ones and guests around the meal table to mark the evening breaking of the fast.
One of the best coffee-table cookbooks about Turkey in recent years is Claudia Roden’s “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon.” It is a real pleasure to flick through this feast for the eyes, but the emphasis on community meals in Ramadan adds an extra dimension to the vibrant photographs of people on Middle Eastern streets interspersed with the most delicious recipes.
What makes a great cookery book?
I guess one key ingredient is an author who really understands food. Older cooks will recall Roden as being the food writer who first brought Middle Eastern cuisine to the world’s attention. Younger cooks will be impressed by the acknowledgement from super-hostess Nigella Lawson on the cover, “I love Claudia Roden -- she’s a genius.” In the late 1960s, Roden took the cookbook world by storm with her “Book of Middle Eastern Food,” which introduced Western cooks to dishes such as falafel and baklava, and to ingredients such as olive oil, feta cheese and phyllo pastry. Born in Cairo, she left home for Europe before the Suez Crisis, when many other Jews were forced to flee. Her personal history is intertwined with the culinary history of the region.
A second key feature of a great cookbook is for it to be packed full of recipes, with a wide range of dishes for each meal of the day and each course of a meal. Here, “Arabesque” is less successful than Roden’s 1960s classic. The “Book of Middle Eastern Food” had many recipes on each page, with a focus on cramming recipes into every available space. “Arabesque,” on the other hand, is deliberately aimed at the modern book market, with equal emphasis being given to sumptuous pictures and sumptuous recipes.
For a cookbook to make it off the coffee table and into the kitchen, it needs to contain recipes that are realistic and reliable. This is where Roden comes into her own. I am tired of discarding recipes when ingredients are impossible to obtain (one I threw away this week called for both peaches, fresh in summer, and leeks, fresh in winter), require equipment only available in the best-stocked kitchens (not everyone has an ice cream maker) or a key step is skipped over.
Roden focuses on recipes that are traditional and widespread. She is not seeking to present the outlandish, exquisite signature dish of a top chef in an exclusive restaurant, but instead to allow each of us to attend a master class in the kitchen of a neighbor who is known to be the best cook in the apartment block. Whenever she travels in the Middle East she meets people who tell her, “I have a recipe for you.”
This seems like a wonderful job: If you love to eat and love to cook, what could be better than going into people’s homes and learning about them through their recipes? But before you imagine that these housewives do all the hard work and Roden gets the credit, read what she says about her part in the process: “Somehow this thing of going to people’s kitchens is for me very precious for finding out things. And then having to go home and get it right. Usually you don’t get a correct recipe. People forget something. And they’re also not used to writing it down. You have to make sure that it works, and that’s your job.”
As well as scoring highly in the category of recipes that work, Roden wins hands-down on the fourth vital ingredient: stories. From telling us about the Janissary army officers whose titles came from the camp kitchen (the First Maker of Soup, the First Carrier of Water) to the professional cooks of Bolu, her storytelling ability conjures the mystical world from which these mouth-watering dishes are born.
The infectious delight in food, and the warmth and hospitality of the Moroccan, Turkish and Lebanese table portrayed in “Arabesque,” are guaranteed to spill from the pages of this book as you read it. Let this wonderful food win your heart, too.
“Arabesque,” by Claudia Roden, published by Penguin, 29.99 pounds in hardcover ISBN: 978-071814581-1 war.
“Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign,” by Sherard Cowper-Coles, published by Harper Collins, 8.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-000743204-2