Middle Eastern food has never been more healthy or in vogue

Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem
Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

I arrived in London from Jerusalem in the early 80’s for my first term at UCL with a single battered suitcase and clutching a paperback copy of Claudia Roden’s Middle East cookbook.

The food was exotic at the time and I regularly dipped into it to throw together pots of food for ravenous student friends. Meatballs with sweet cinnamon and pine nuts or with pungent cumin and coriander all cooked in a large pot expediently purchased from Heals on Tottenham Court Road, and which cost £16 at the time causing my then boyfriend’s mother to enquire whether it was made of gold.

Egyptian born Claudia Roden gathered her friends’ and fellow refugees from Syria, Iraq and beyond’s recipes together for posterity and published A Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1968. The book was the “fruit of nostalgic longing for, and delighted savouring of, a food that was the constant joy of life…” containing over 800 recipes interlaced with evocative stories from the Arab world.

A generation later with a grown family I turn again to her wonderful recipes, by now considered far less exotic, for their rich vegetarian content. Having forcibly started a new eating and fitness regime following various sobering health scares I am delighted to find a wealth of options rich in tomatoes and courgettes, aubergines and chick peas in the by now stained and yellowed pages.

Cookbook author Claudia Roden at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 2012. (Wikipedia/Navaro)

And over the months of sensible meal plans miraculously my blood sugar is normal and I am to my astonishment increasingly svelte. And my friends relish the chance to try delicious humous and tabouleh, babaghanoush, shakshuka, aubergines stuffed with grated haloumi in a rich tomato sauce, stuffed artichokes or the delectable Egyptian cauliflower. They too are keen to shop from scratch, as we all become evermore health conscious and intent on cooking with fresh ingredients every day.

My mother lights up during our regular pre-shabbat calls as we discuss what we plan to cook for the weekend. And when I visit we stroll through Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market amidst the pungent array of vibrant stalls, stopping to choose vegetables at the stall down a narrow alley that she insists has the best tomatoes and freshest herbs. We buy salmon from the toothless fish-man she favours and roasted nuts from a Sephardi man who knows me so well he may have been there before I left, he insists on giving me fresh nuts from the back of his shop rather than the ones that have been lingering all day, and encourages us to buy fat dates as well.

Last weekend my son was home and I brought out the still serviceable chipped old pot and put together the well remembered meatballs of old for a gathering of his friends, kneading in the cinnamon to the minced up meat and sautéing the onions and pine nuts. One guest, newly pregnant and originally from Jerusalem sniffed the air as she arrived and wondered out loud what I was cooking – ohh cinnamon she beamed making straight for the kitchen to check the stove. Later she said she had eaten more than she had for weeks – a compliment indeed.

About the Author
Rachel Silver is a writer and PR Consultant