Claudia Roden & Madhur Jaffrey ~ Food talks that stir up emotions

By Ishita B Saha: It is said that ‘Lightning never strikes twice’… but for me it did recently when I got a chance to meet, chat and hear, not one but two legendary food writers over this weekend. I am talking about Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey, the former being a legendary food author and culinary anthropologist, and the latter – a renowned food and travel writer, and a television personality. In between interviewing the two of them in exclusive sessions and hearing them together on stage in an hour long panel – ‘A World in a Plate’ at #DubaiLitfest along with Mark Karlusky (author of Cod and Salt, books that show how food shaped global trade and human history, and International Night, a collection of international recipes he and his daughter cooked together), I was already privy to more than six decades of culinary research that reflected two extremely rich cuisines which were backed by a couple of thousands of years of history scattered with geopolitical changes and cultural amalgamation. In our tête-à-tête, Claudia traced her journey of writing on Middle Eastern food, while Madhur talked about her culinary forte – that of Indian Cuisine. The warmth in their voices and the emotions they evoked as they spoke of their respective cuisines was contagious and mesmerising. The grace, elegance and beauty of both the octogenarians seemed to emanate straight from their hearts and their enthusiasm, energies and vibes belied the mere numbers that marked their eight decades of existence – eighty-two for Claudia, and almost eighty-five for Madhur. I couldn’t help but draw lines of similarities between these two dames extraoridinaores. While both of them spoke affectionately and affirmatively, they both strived to showcase their respective cuisines settled far away from their lands of origin – Claudia lived in London, and Madhur was based in Manhattan. It was Madhu who was instrumental in bringing Indian cuisine to the Americas with her debut cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973) and in the UK with her appearances on television, including her own cookery show – Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery (1982) amongst others. Apart from writing a few dozen cookbooks each, both of them have also won several awards and accolades of international distinction – a James Beard Award for Claudia for her The Book of Jewish Food while her Arabesque has won the Gourmand World Media Special Award of the Jury, amongst many other awards. Madhur today is not only an honorary CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an honour awarded to an individual by the Queen of England), but also has seven James Beard Awards to her claim, with her debut cookbook being inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. And last but definitely not the least, both of them were extensive and systematic travellers, more so in their quests to learn and do research before penning their cookbooks. As if by coincidence – both of them were currently working on their new cookbooks that have required them to travel. Claudia is excited with her book on Mediterranean cuisine, and Madhur has just finished her travels for her next cookbook which is based on family recipes that have healing properties, collected from all over India. ‘I can’t drive anymore’, lamented Claudia as we spoke on travel and added, ‘There was a time when I used to travel alone, driving upto the mountains, staying in villages for my research. But now I feel a bit too scared to drive!’ The very reason I wanted to meet them was to see them with my own eyes and hear them speak with my own ears was because of this – they were both living legends and inspired me tremendously. Claudia Roden was my eternal reference point for Middle Eastern food, while Madhur’s book Climbing the Mango Trees (2006), a nostalgic memoir of her childhood in India during the final years of the British Raj, practically stalled my ambition of writing my first book. For if a book had to be written, it had to be soul-stirring and poignant as hers! 

As I heard Claudia speak, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how her first book, A Book of the Middle Eastern Cooking that she had written in 1968 – exactly fifty years back, was still so relevant today. Resorting to one’s regional cuisine is the easiest way of feeling close to own’s homeland by a displaced diaspora, specially in the Middle East with a few countries torn by war. Claudia’s objective when she wrote her first book was more of regaining her own composer after having displaced from her homeland, rather than retaining a culture. She recalls emotionally – ‘I started collecting recipes more than sixty years ago. It was firstly a way of recording a culture, a world that had vanished. I come from Egypt which in my time was a cosmopolitan country with many minorities where French was the lingua franca. I was part of the Jewish community and in 1956 during the Suez war (Suez Crisis) the Jews had to leave Egypt. They left amass, all of a sudden, within in days and they spread out all over the world. For a while I was inundated with all these people leaving and the only thing that they carried were their recipes. At that time, I realise how important these recipes were. We weren’t only Egyptian Jews, some of our family members came from Aleppo in Syria, and Turkey. There were people from all over the Mediterranean settled in Egypt when Suez Canal was opened and then suddenly we were all leaving. I started collecting all the recipes without realising where all these came from but tried to make sense of what these dishes were and where they came from.’

Claudia tells me how it was embarrassing in her times when she was studying in college in England, to tell people that she was collecting recipes to write a cookbook or to even say that she was a food writer. I found it hard to fathom how the subject of Food which is so revered today, used to be considered a taboo even a while ago. ‘Cookbook writing today is the biggest thing today and food may be the hottest subject for discussion, but in my times, writing a cookbook was considered the lowest form of any publication. This was probably because food at that time was considered frivolous, an indulgence, and wasn’t considered interesting. People ate just to sustain themselves. On top of that, Middle Eastern food was considered quite terrible and the only images that it conjured up were sheep eyes and testicles! This somehow encouraged me to bring in a whole lot of things about the culture, the stories – and so in my first book, A Book of the Middle Eastern Cooking, I put in lot of anecdotes, poems and riddles because I missed my world – my home. We were Jews but we were part of the Middle Eastern culture for centuries and we shared the same culture. I wanted to tell people that that culture was beautiful and rich.’ So what made the shift in people’s thinking, I ask. Claudia attributes this to the reaction to the extreme reaction that food evoked over a long period of time, that spread across the all the Anglo Saxon countries. To ask people what they ate had once been so shameful, but everybody she meets today, wants to tell her what they ate, what they cooked and how they cooked.

The pleasure of sitting together for a meal around the table is something that we mustn’t lose ~ Claudia Roden

As I prod into the subject of childhood nostalgia with my belief that it’s only food memories that can connect us to our childhood, I ask both of them about that one nostalgic food memory that they always recreate even today, maybe with their families, children and grandchildren. For Claudia, it’s the Melokhia and Madhur gushes about the traditional Kadhi Chawal. Although there were many other dishes that could satisfy her, it is the Kadhi Chawal that brings her most happiness and comfort, She accounts this to her upbringing in Delhi and the food habits of the Kayasthya community that she belonged to. Claudia reminisced more on her Melokhia – ‘There are a few things that I adore from Egypt, that nobody else likes. But my children like! There is one dish called Melokhia, an Egyptian soup. What we have done is to create that into a cake, our family cake, which we always make on our birthdays and we still feel that we got to do. Cooking together in the kitchen can create so many good memories. I feel chopping an onion or cutting a tomato, is such a pleasure. The pleasure of sitting together for a meal around the table is something that we mustn’t lose, because that’s the way to connect to people, specially for families with children. In some countries, and it started with America, people were eating at the fridge – each family member would pick up something from the fridge, put it in the microwave… and eat alone and people didn’t sit around the table to eat. To grow up without any special food memory is not a good thing.’

While on my personal quest in explaining Bengali food to the non-initiated, I have realised that talking about a less established cuisine can be quite a challenge. Again, once the cuisine is established, there are only a few dishes that start gathering momentum and notorierty irrespective of the authenticity of the dishes. Now that Indian Cuisine is quite popular in many countries, does Madhur feel that it has actually transcended beyond the proverbial Curry, Chicken tikka and Butter chicken? Madhur admits that she was quite a novice when she started. ‘When I started writing about Indian Cuisine, I didn’t know too much about Indian cuisine. I knew about the food of Delhi, so my very first book – An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973) is really about the cuisine of Delhi, which is all that I knew. Because I was interested, I have slowly learnt about the regional cuisines as I travelled more and more through India. I realised that there’s so much to learn about Indian cuisine. Even if you go to one state like Bengal (quite obviously our discussions more than once directed themselves to Bengal, because of me), there are so many parts of Bengal. If you go to one village, there will be one kind of food, while in other parts there will be other kinds of food. And there can be so many different kinds of discussion here like sublayers – widows’ food, traditional food cooked during festivals that is different from the traditional food cooked at other times – it’s endless. I have taught myself about Indian cuisine and I feel that other people might be interested in it too. As I am learning, maybe I can tell them about it. I think more on these lines rather than teaching the world. I never set out to teach anyone anything. I just set out to write something that I found interesting that I was learning, and thought let’s see whether people are interested in it.’ The relationship of food with people’s emotion is sacred too. Having grown up in the British India, Madhur recalls how salt played a huge role in Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly. While India produced a lot of salt, most Indians were deprived of this essential ingredient in their food due to the huge taxes levied on salt which led Mahatma Gandhi to start his Salt March also known as the Dandi March. ‘Salt means something else for me. When I eat something with salt, I remember the fight for independence and I taste that independence in all the salt that I eat!’

Before taking leave, I request Claudia to share her Molokhia cake recipe which today occupies a place in the menu in a restaurant in London. She scribbled on my visiting card under my name as a reminder to herself, to send me the recipe! Laden with such emotions and carrying such a significance, this recipe would definitely be one of the most valuable recipe that we may be able to share with our readers, soon. A recipe with a story, a food moment that lasts a lifetime is what touches Madhur too, be it traditional or fusion. She shares – ‘I try all kinds of food and I am open to trying the new kinds of food that people are making that are more fusion. But a dish is not satisfying to me generally, if it has no solidity and tradition behind it. Yes, I like dishes that are more traditional but if you make me a fusion dish that tastes really good, I will eat it with great enjoyment. However, at the end I am always drawn to dishes that are generally traditional, and the weight of something in them that has passed the test of history. They are tastier to me than a fusion dish.’

When I eat something with salt, I remember the fight for independence (India’s) and I taste that independence in all the salt that I eat!’ ~ Madhur Jaffrey

Today, with Kindle and Internet having taken over printed publications, both the authors feel a sense of deep resentment and feel that cookbooks are still very relevant. Having penned a number of books, they wish that their books ‘live and last’. With selected recipes from their cookbooks floating freely on the internet, they feel that the hard work of all her fellow authors are being defeated. As for me, I am fascinated by cookbooks and while my work may involve the internet, I am going to lend my voice for the cause of cookbooks as long as I write. But for the time being, let me rewinding all my moments spent with Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey, the two scions of the culinary world whose works have introduced a new set of people to the nuances of the cuisines of their origins. While flipping through the pages of Madhur’s books stir up my emotions and make me feel proud of my Indian roots – the current global superfood turmeric and all the other spices that take up shelf space in my Indian kitchen, Claudia’s books lead me through a path of discovery of a cuisine that is foreign to me -only by virtue of my birth! What will reverberate within me, are Madhur’s words – ‘I don’t see why people should be moving away from their heritage food. I wouldn’t change anything. Never forget where you come from and your roots!’

Claudia Roden & Madhur Jaffrey in Dubai

Ishita with Claudia Roden (left) and Madhur Jaffrey (right) during exclusive interview sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature being held from 1st-10th March 2018 in Intercontinental Dubai Festival City.

Claudia Roden & Madhur Jaffrey in Dubai

About the authors: Madhur Jaffrey is a world authority on Indian food, and through books such as Curry Easy has introduced aspiring cooks to the varied cuisines of India; and Claudia Roden approaches the food of the Middle East and Mediterranean as an anthropologist: her recent book The Food of Spain explores the history and culture of the regional cuisines featured.

[Video by Ishita B Saha]

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