I have long been a big fan of Claudia Roden, the prolific Cairo-born food writer, who has authored definitive books about Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Her newest book on the Middle East, “Arabesque” (Knopf 2009) focuses on the separate cuisines of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon and I could not wait to get my hands on it. It certainly does not disappoint. I have always appreciated Roden for her relaxed style: clear instructions fused with a laid back attitude. When describing the signature dish of hummus, she reminds the reader that, “It is the kind of thing you make to taste, adding a little more garlic, salt, or tahini as you go along.” So true!
“Arabesque” opens with a comprehensive introduction to the book, the regions, and the cuisine: a magnificent overture to the symphony to come. A helpful list of spices that may not lurk in every pantry is included, as are some handy tips on prepping hard-to-handle vegetables such as eggplants and tomatoes.
The next three chapters are divided into three sections: one per country. This gives the reader a very assiduous focus on each country’s specific traditions and techniques, rather than the broader strokes that normally characterize a regional cookery book. Roden does much more, lingering over her introduction to each nationality, with vivid descriptions of her own experiences of the rituals and recipes of each. She then proceeds to walk us through starters, main courses, and desserts. Although I have long been both a passionate consumer and cook of Middle Eastern cuisine, there was much that I found new and my copy of the book is now covered in post-its of the recipes I am anxious to try. Among these are Tagine of Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives, Kofte Kebab with Tomato Sauce and Yogurt, and Sambousek Bi Jibne, or little puff pastry cheese pies.
“Arabesque” is the kind of cookbook you take back to bed with you on a Sunday morning with a large latte, paging through the delightful photographs and pondering the culinary delights presented in so friendly and appealing a style by an accomplished food writer who is passionate about her subject matter.