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Cooking medieval dishes


Discovering the history of the Middle East food
Claudia Roden Writer
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He was famously a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre eventually. Because he was a sociologist. Or rather he was beginning to do his PhD in sociology, he was an Arabist. And he was also a sociologist, and he happened to be in Damascus in the French Army. He was a young soldier when the war broke out and France was occupied. And they said, 'Stay there'. All the armies that were abroad, stay there. And so, he was there trying to do his PhD and he went, and he found a manuscript on food. And he wrote about... he described all the dishes. He didn't give the exact recipe. And he also explained that there could have been... why were they the way they were, as a sociologist. And also, because there had been a Court Cuisine in the time of the Umayyads. And... the foods that came from the Arab Empire, from other Islamic countries. The spice trade. He had a whole lot of explanations. And so for me, I was totally, totally enthralled that somebody could, from just recipes, ancient ones, also conjure up a whole world at that time.

And the Professor Arberry who did the Baghdad manuscript... he translated the recipes. But of course, they were... the quantities were one dirham of rice. Or... I don't know if the rice, it means there was no measures. They didn't weigh. They just said how much it costs. So much thing of potatoes, or whatever. There weren't potatoes yet because potatoes came from the New World. But he did write about poetry of the time. And there were... he wrote saying, it was a time of King Harun al Rashid. It was after Harun al Rashid. Harun al Rashid would have been in the 10Th century. So, the stories of Harun al Rashid and the Arabian Nights and all that. And that it was written, the manuscript, by different hands. The different people contributed. But they also said things that made you understand what that world was. And it was the worlds of the aristocracy. And they had princes, and they'd give the names of the princes. And so, for me too, that was absolutely extraordinary. And unfortunately, the one in Andalusia, the book, was in Arabic. But there was a translation by a Spaniard called Huici Miranda. But he translated it in Spanish. And back then, I couldn't read Spanish well. I can now. So, I just could make out a bit what recipes could be. So that really also started me off in a wish to do more than just give recipes.

But I went to SOAS, I went to University College. I can't understand how they allowed me to take books home, because I wasn't a member of SOAS. I didn't go to school there; I didn't study there. But how did they give me... and I used to go home with a whole pile of books all on the history of the Middle East. To be able to understand how the history of the Middle East actually became the history of the food. And where... how did dishes travel. And about the Ottoman World. How dishes were created in the Empire, in the Court Cuisine. What kind of Court it was. For me, it fascinated me. Because I hadn't been allowed or able to go to university, I was thirsting for knowledge. And not thirsting, I was enthralled. So, maybe if I'd gone to university, I might not have been so interested. But because I had to really find it in books... And so that was the way I was interested.

Claudia Roden (b. 1936) is an Egyptian-born British cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist of Sephardi/Mizrahi descent. She is best known as the author of Middle Eastern cookbooks including A Book of Middle Eastern Food, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food.

Listeners: Nelly Wolman

Claudia Roden talking to her granddaughter Nelly Wolman about her life in food.

Tags: Haruna Rashid, Ambrosio Huici Miranda

Duration: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2022

Date story went live: 04 December 2023