In 1981, at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, an annual gathering of some of the finest minds in the food world, the cookbook writer Claudia Roden, already famous for her authoritative first book, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, declared, “There is really no such thing as Jewish food.”
Because the Jewish God has a sense of humor, Roden shortly afterward embarked (at the suggestion of her British editor) on a new project about, yes, Jewish food. The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day (the American edition is subtitled An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York) took 16 years to finish, plenty of time to consider the Jewish food question.
But, I hear you cry, isn’t it obvious? Bagels! Lox! Gefilte fish! The maddeningly complex laws of kashrut, which have been subject to debate for several millennia! Of course there is Jewish food!
Well, yes and no. There are entire communities of Jews, including the one in Cairo in which Roden grew up, who have never eaten bagels and lox. And not all Jews keep kosher. As Roden traveled the world talking to Jews about their food, she realized that everyone had their own personal idea of what made food Jewish. Jewishness isn’t a place. Jews move around too much for that. Jewishness is a state of mind, and Jewish food is often eaten in exile.
For Roden, Jewish food was the dishes her grandparents had brought to Egypt from Constantinople and Aleppo at the turn of the 20th century: kibbeh and little meat and spinach pies and a chicken soup called melokheya, named after the distinctive-smelling leafy green vegetable that floated in it. For a Jew in Samarkand, it would have been khalti barsh, rice mixed with meat and liver and cooked overnight in a linen bag, and for a Jew in Morocco, couscous with stuffed meatballs. Only an American or Canadian would consider bagels and lox central to Jewish cuisine, and they would argue with a Brit about the proper preparation of gefilte fish because in England, instead of serving the fish balls in cold jelly, they fry them. The only common denominator appears to be matzo, unleavened bread of affliction that’s eaten at Passover, and a cookbook devoted to that would be very short and unspeakably sad.
This lack of consensus is a very big problem for someone who is trying to write the definitive book on Jewish food.
At first, Roden thought she would collect every Jewish dish in every Jewish community in living memory, until she realized this quest would probably take her the rest of her life. So she decided to limit the book to the largest and best-known communities and select the very best she could find. She still ended up with 800 recipes.
Not all Jewish dishes are exclusive to Jews. Everybody in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen eats falafel, for example. But Roden found that Jews tend to put their own twists on common regional foods to make them conform to the kosher laws, like using oil instead of butter. Sometimes, after leaving — or being expelled — from one country, they would bring their food to another, like the Yemeni Jews who brought a spicy relish from Arabia to Israel where they served it on falafel and therefore made falafel Jewish. Was this relish considered Jewish in Yemen? Would it have ever been served with falafel if not for the Jews?
Instead of trying to be completist or hand down definitive judgments, Roden decided — and this is the reason this book is wonderful — to put all these recipes back in the context in which they were first eaten by Jews. Food becomes a means of time travel. Even if there were no recipes at all, the descriptions of the Jewish communities of the past and what they ate would make the book worth reading.
The places she brings us are almost uniformly beautiful. Most of them no longer exist. Maybe they never did. Roden describes a series of tight-knit communities, some more prosperous than others, where people always keep the door open for their neighbors and an extra seat at the table for a stray visitor or someone going through a hard time. Friday night is a time to gather, to shake off the worries of the workweek and enjoy a glorious meal that took all day to prepare. Even the Eastern European shtetls, which I firmly believe are the source of much inherited trauma for American Jews, are bathed in this golden light. (The lone exception is America, the land of Crisco, difficult to romanticize because it still exists.) Roden did meticulous research, and the pictures she paints are beautifully detailed. But, like those Renaissance artists who gave Biblical characters the faces of people they knew, Roden is really telling the story of her own lost world.
The Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo, where Roden was born, was a close and cosmopolitan community where Jews mingled freely with their Muslim neighbors. They spoke French and ate Syrian food prepared by their Egyptian cooks. Roden’s relatives were all merchants; the family traveled to Europe for several months every year. At home, in the words of Roden’s father, “we spent our time on the balcony talking to passersby.”
In 1951, when she was 15, Roden left Egypt to go to boarding school in Paris, and then, three years later, to London to study painting at Central Saint Martins. In the fall of 1956, in the wake of the Suez Crisis and the failed invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France, the Egyptian president Gamal Adbel Nasser expelled all foreigners and Jews, some with as little as 24 hours’ notice. Roden’s parents, Nelly and Cesar Douek, joined her and her two brothers in London, and none of them saw Egypt again for 30 years.
In the immediate aftermath of the exodus, the Doueks’ North London home became a place for the exiles from Zamalek to gather. Many of them were passing through on their way to New York or Jerusalem or South America. They were all grieving. In Cairo, very few of them had cooked — everyone had servants — but they still had their family recipes. Roden would learn later on, once she started reading the work of anthropologists, that every family has its own culinary code. “In the selection of dishes,” she writes in the introduction to The Book of Jewish Food, “there is a logic that combines mythological, historic, and moral significance to create a symbol.” Those codes put a particular stamp on each family’s version of a dish. In Egypt, recipes were closely kept secrets. No one ever shared. But in exile, things were different.
“They were desperate,” Roden has recalled to multiple interviewers. “They would say, ‘Please, give me your recipe for that. It’ll be something I’ll remember you for because I might never see you again.’ And for most of those people, we never, ever saw them again. And those recipes were so precious, I found.”
She tells this story the same way every time because it is her origin story. After a while, she began collecting recipes from outside her family’s immediate social circle. She would go to places like carpet stores and the Iranian embassy and ask random people. This has remained her method throughout her life. People always give them to her. No one has ever gotten angry at her for publishing them. Quite often, she gets multiple recipes for the same dish. The Book of Jewish Food is full of variations: This is how the Syrians make it, and this is how the Iranians do it, and this is how you would have found it in Thessaloniki before World War II, when it was still called Salonika.
Roden’s quest for more recipes eventually took her to the British Museum in search of Arab cookbooks. The only ones she could find were from the Middle Ages. She also found a Ph.D. dissertation about a 13th-century cooking manual from what is now Lebanon. It explored not just how to prepare food but also what the food said about the society: which class of people was eating these dishes and which class of people was preparing them and the trade routes that made foreign ingredients available. For Roden, it was an epiphany. “I just realized how food can tell you so much,” she recalled later.
In The Book of Jewish Food, Roden divides the Jewish world into two cultures: the Ashkenazi of Eastern Europe, and the Sephardi of Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, India, and Southwest and Central Asia. (It’s worth noting that the terminology has changed a bit since Roden published her book; Jews from North Africa, Central Asia, and the Eastern Mediterranean are commonly referred to as Mizrahi) The two cultures speak differently, pray differently, and eat vastly different food. Although Roden has by now lived most of her life among the Ashkenazim (including marriage to, and then divorce from, a British Jew of Russian descent), she is still very much Sephardi.
Sephardic recipes take up two-thirds of The Book of Jewish Food, and while Roden makes an effort to give Ashkenazi food its due, her heart is clearly not in it: In a New Yorker profile, the writer Jane Kramer points out to Roden that her matzo balls are a spectacular failure (no seltzer water!) and Roden shrugs and “admit[s] to having been less than discerning when it came to some of the Ashkenazi dishes.” In the section on fish, you can almost hear Roden gloat when she shares her discovery that fish and chips, the most beloved food of her adopted country, was not, in fact, invented by an Eastern European Jew, as was widely believed, but brought to London much earlier by Portuguese Jewish immigrants.
This focus on Sephardic food was quite novel in the English-speaking world in 1996 when the book was first published. But in the past quarter-century, Roden’s disciples, notably Yotam Ottolenghi in England and Michael Solomonov in the U.S., have made many converts. At this point, with the slow and painful death of the Jewish deli and the realization that schmaltz, the central fat of Ashkenazi cuisine, can actually kill you, there are probably more Jews eating eggplant, yogurt, and falafel than pastrami.
The overall experience of cooking from The Book of Jewish Food is less like a lesson from your bubbe or your aunties, the way cooking (allegedly) used to be, and more like a choose-your-own-adventure. With 800 recipes, who has time for hand-holding? This can get challenging when you are making a dish you have never seen or even heard of before, especially if you’re a nervous cook like I am.
I did not attempt the kibbeh, even with the aid of YouTube tutorials. Roden writes that it was “the standard by which once upon a time women were judged,” and the pressure was too much. I also did not attempt any of the many pies because, according to Roden, you can’t make just a few, you have to make dozens, and doing it solo instead of with a kitchen full of friends and relatives makes one tend to feel lonesome and sorry for oneself.
I did make anjuli, a cold fish and potato salad from India, because Roden is very enthusiastic and persuasive about the Indian recipes she’s collected. It had a delicate flavor, and now I think coconut milk is a very underrated ingredient in fish salads. The Sephardi rice pudding, which I made the Egyptian way (baked until it developed a brown crust, like the top of a Portuguese egg tart) and then the Spanish way (unbaked and flavored with vanilla and lemon zest), was also very good.
Rice pudding, as it happens, was one of the dishes Roden ate when she finally returned to Cairo after years of exile. It was in a tiny dairy in Sakakini, the neighborhood where her parents had been born, and after she told this to the shopkeeper, he told her the pudding was on the house. That pudding welcomed her home. Was I tasting it now in Chicago in 2023? I didn’t think so — I had been slightly confused by the recipe and I’m quite sure the rice and milk I used had a different flavor. Plus I was eating it standing in my kitchen, not outdoors at a little table staring up at an old palace. Context is everything.
But I could still flip open the book to the description of old Cairo and I could read and imagine the smells of sizzling garlic and crushed coriander seeds with an overlay of rosewater, the domes and minarets, the courtyards behind metal grilles, and the sound of voices from the balcony, the family chatting with the passersby.
Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.