Claudia Roden, whose many cookbooks have been responsible for introducing generations of British cooks to the cusines of Europe and the Middle East, comes from a family of food-lovers. Here, to mark the approach of Mothering Sunday, she reminisces about her childhood, and about her mother's importance as an influence on her approach to food and passion for cookery.
Early life in Egypt
My mother always had a passion for wonderful food but in the early years of my life, when we were living in Egypt, we had a cook so she didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. It was different for parties or special occasions. Then, her sisters would come and that’s when I also enjoyed, in my childhood, being part of the women who were cooking or preparing things and talking and so on.
Flight to London
My parents had to leave Egypt in a hurry after the Suez crisis in 1956, and they came to Britain as refugees. My father quickly started working and we, her children, were all out at work or studying mainly. My mother, her one thing that she found that gave her a lot of joy was cooking, which she didn’t do really every day before. And so, in a way, she discovered the pleasure of cooking. She adored my father, and all she wanted was to please him all the time and he really liked food. The dishes she cooked brought back fond memories of his childhood. And his memories of his childhood...it wasn’t really his memories but it was what they cooked...what his sisters had cooked. He was one of a family of eleven, and there were ten sisters. He was the only boy. He was very spoiled, and loving. Everybody adored him. So did my mother and he was very good natured, but she knew, together, the bringing out of all the good things that they remembered in Egypt, either that his sisters did, his mother did, brought them happiness. And so she was always thinking of “What shall I make?”
Discovering and rediscovering
I always remember my mother pondering, “What shall I cook?”. I had finished art school and was working at Alitalia in London when my parents first arrived. My brothers and I rented a flat, and when my parents came, the people who rented us the flat just said “Tell your parents to come. We have another room and you don’t need to pay, until they are settled”. And so it was a very great memory for me, even at that time, and for them as well. My parents did quickly manage to get a mortgage, because my mother had a British passport and was a Sassoon, and so in this very bare house that they bought she was cooking all the time. For me it was a way of bonding, I mean it was the thing that brought us closest. She had a big influence in what I wrote in my book because she was, in a way, discovering and rediscovering dishes as I was researching elsewhere. In a way, I was bringing something to her as well.
Friday night family meals
Cooking was a way for her to feel comfortable – comfortable with the things that you like. We all liked to come, my two brothers and all our children, we used to go every Friday night and it was just wonderful – somehow bringing us together around food. More or less she always cooked similar things. She always made chicken soffritto, which had garlic, turmeric, sometimes cardamom and sometimes chickpeas. There was always rice with vermicelli – it’s an Arab kind of rice. And she had as vegetables broad beans – all the things we had in Egypt – aubergines, courgettes, peppers.
The filo expedition
We had to travel to Camden Town and Kentish Town to buy ingredients, because that’s where the Cypriot shops were. We used to go all the way to Kentish Town to buy filo because there was no way to buy it in a supermarket or anything, and there they actually made it by hand. So, every time I pass by there (it doesn’t exist any more) I always think of my mother and going there together. For us, this shopping trip was a very exciting thing.
A heavenly dessert
There is one particular dessert my mother made. She called it Kanafeh a la Creme, and in Turkey they would call it Kataifi. We had to go to a special place to get the pastry. You can get it nowadays in Lebanese stores – it hasn’t gone into supermarkets in the way filo has. So she made the filling. It was with this vermicelli-like dough but white, soft. You roll it in melted in butter. You put two layers and the middle layer is a thick cream, made with milk and thickened with ground rice and with rosewater in it. It’s a bit like a pudding cream. Then you bake it and make a syrup with either rose water or orange blossom water while it’s baking. When it comes out of the oven we always let it cool and chill it and when it comes out you pour the cold syrup on, and then you cover it with pistachios. I must say I still make it now. Cooking dishes from your past is a way of remembering your parents and who you are. We always make it on special occasions. For us, this memory that a dish creates, is important. It’s part of our identity – who we are.
Generations of inspiration
I am not sure my mother approved when she saw me cooking Jewish dishes from all over the world. I think she thought I should only be cooking their dishes! Especially for special feasts, for Passover, we should only do their things. She would be pleased about all the things I’m doing. She was always proud of my achievements. She would go and tell people “I am the mother, and I gave her recipes”. When I go to see my daughter in New York, I notice that she is continuing the tradition – she makes all the dishes my mother used to make. There is a wonderful sense of continuity.
The new edition of Claudia Roden's The Food of Italy, including full colour photography and over 70 new recipes, is out now.
Click here for Claudia Roden's Ultimate Mother's Day Menu