Claudia Roden doesn’t just write cookbooks. She writes about food as cultural history, about how food defines a country and its image. Each book is a culinary journey into a culture rich in food—be it Samarkand, New York (The Book of Jewish Food), Morocco, Turkey, or Lebanon (Arabesque).
I meet Roden at a nondescript Italian corner trattoria in TriBeCa in lower Manhattan. She speaks gently in French-accented English; during the opening of the Suez Canal, Roden’s grandparents had emmigrated from Syria and Istanbul to Cairo, Egypt, where she grew up speaking French.
I ask about her new book, The Food of Spain, a 600-page-plus volume that published earlier this month.
Why does it seem to be a challenge to get fresh vegetables in Spain or in Spanish restaurants here?
Vegetables were food of the peasantry, and the aristocracy despised them. There are plenty of fresh vegetables in Spain, though sometimes they are overcooked. Salads are often complex, with bits of bacon or ham tossed in.
Ah, yes. As much as I like pork—it seems to be a basis for many of the dishes.
Pork became a tool of the reconquista [the movement to bring the Muslim parts of the Iberian peninsula under Christian rule from 711 AD to 1492]. An official government person was sent around to make sure that people did not incorporate non-Christian items into their dishes. So out of fear, everyone began including pork in various forms in many of their meals. This practice lasted until the 19th century.
How did pimentón, or paprika, become pervasive in Spanish cuisine?
It was originally brought to Spain from the Americas in the 16th cenury, and it eventually replaced black pepper, which had come from the Middle East.
In a country where cuisine is regional, what dishes have come to symbolize Spanish cuisine?
Paella from Valencia, and gazpacho soup from Seville, which is traditionally made with green pepper—though I prefer the sweetness of red pepper. But there is also fabada, from the north, which is a white bean stew made with thick ham and blood sausage.
Why did you choose Spain?
It was Daniel Halpern (publisher of Ecco) who convinced me to do this book. It was a challenge for me—and I needed a challenge—but I was concerned first about not speaking Spanish. And it seemed harder travel than, say, in Italy, when I researched The Food of Italy.
When you are not doing research for your books, or perhaps want a change of palate, what do you cook?
Roast chicken with salted apples and grapes—my kids really like it.