Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Old Versus New: Middle Eastern Food

I have been reading Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon by Claudia Roden. It is fine as it goes with introductory pages for each country, sumptuous photography and exotic recipes. However, I was left cold as somehow I didn't feel Ms. Roden's personality shining through. If one wants a cookery manual, this is doubtless a fine one. However, I have come to demand more. (Yes, I know ... picky, picky, picky). Truth to tell, I am not so much interested in making Middle Eastern food as I am in reading about it. So that's a personal flaw as we can all see.

However, what that book did was make me go pick up my long-time favorite old edition of A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

I am reposting my review of it as compared to Ms. Roden's updated version which I believe that some visitors may not have seen as I wrote it some time ago. Bon appetit!

A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

The collection began fifteen years ago with a recipe for ful medames. I was a schoolgirl in Paris then. Every Sunday I was invited together with my brothers and a cousin to eat ful medames with some relatives. This meal became a ritual. Considered in Egypt to be a poor man's dish, in Paris the little brown beans became invested with all the glories and warmth of Cairo, our hometown, and the embodiment of all that for which we were homesick.

Our hosts lived in a one-room apartment, and were both working, so it was possible for them to prepare only with tinned ful. Ceremoniously, we sprinkled the beans with olive oil, squeezed a little lemon over them, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and placed a hot hard-boiled egg in their midst. Delicious ecstasy! Silently, we ate the beans, whole and firm at first; then we squashed them with our forks and combined their floury texture and slightly dull, earthy taste with the acid tang of lemon, mellowed by the olive oil; finally, we crumbled the egg, matching its earthiness with that of the beans, its pale warm yellow with their dull brown.

I always have loved A Book of Middle Eastern Food even though I have never cooked anything out of it. My affection stemmed from the fact that it has qualities no long found in most cook books. Roden is passionate about the food of the Middle East and writes with a charm and enthusiasm that is infectious. Throughout are stories of her life growing up and old folk tales from the region. Although the writing styles are very different, this book makes me think of M.F.K. Fisher's which have a connection to times past and human experience.

I have known for some time about the updated version but didn't become curious about it until recently. For one thing, I wasn't cooking from this book, which is perhaps all to the good as many of the Amazon reviews of this older edition are not very happy with recipe quality.

After reading the updated book I am sure that the recipes probably are more accurate and better written. However, much of the charm is gone. Roden herself admits that, upon rereading the original, she was embarrassed at the youth and passion which poured out of it. It is all too obvious where her prosaic, modern voice is inserted and many of the stories that flowed naturally in the original are now broken out into boxes which I thought broke up the book in a choppy manner.

I am happy enough to go to local restaurants for Middle Eastern food. If you want to make it yourself I am sure the new book is the best bet. I will stick with the original, however, and the passionate voice of Roden's youth.

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