Manna provided unexpected sustenance for the early Hebrews wandering the deserts 3,000 years ago. It was a gluey, sugary secretion from the tamarisk shrub, Claudia Roden informs us, and it is still prepared to this day, dissolved in hot water and cooked to a thick paste, then served with chopped almonds. She also makes it clear to those who only know the Jewish cooking of northern Europe (Germany, Poland, Russia) and think of it as a limited and well-documented subject, maybe lacking in excitement, that the opposite is true.
Claudia Roden is renowned as the author of The Book of Middle Eastern Food, another inspiring and definitive work. Because of this and her background (born into a Jewish family in Cairo), America's top cookery book editor, Judith Jones commissioned her to do for Jewish food what she had done for the cooking of the Middle East. Roden took up the challenge, but says that many times in the last 16 years she was on the point of abandoning the project. She told Judith Jones it couldn't be done. It was too diverse, a story with roots in communities as contrasting as those of northern Europe and the Mediterranean which then reach into the furthest corners of the world. It also seemed unlikely that a Jewish cultural identity could have been sustained for 3,000 years, given the nature of the diaspora which began when the Jews were dispersed in the first century AD after captivity under the Babylonians.
But Jones insisted, and because nothing quite so dramatically provides historical links with the past as food, Roden began to find the clues and unravel the plot. It was particularly difficult, she points out, because Jewish food culture has no "terroir" (terroir being what the French call the native soil which produces a region's unique style of gastronomy). Except that the Middle East was the original terroir. And her revised reading of the Old Testament has provided some fascinating insights into the Hebrews' early, semi-nomadic life.
Take the land of milk and honey, for example. In spite of a reference in Judges to Samson eating honey from a hive of bees in the skull of a lion, bee-keeping is not mentioned in the Bible. Scholars are now sure that references to honey refer to date honey, which was made by boiling down the thick juice of dates. But most of the foodstuffs of biblical times are familiar enough: cultivated wheat and barley, lentils and broad beans, grapes and figs. It was not until 200AD that the range of fruit was extended, with the introduction of peaches, apricots, mulberries, quinces, pears and apples. So the Tree of Knowledge couldn't have been an apple tree? No, says Claudia Roden, it was in all probability a fig tree (the rather erotic fig offering an interesting symbol for the tree of sexual knowledge).
Biblical history provides many clues to common elements in the diverse Jewish communities around the world, of which none are as marked as the division between Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Ashkenazi are the Jewish peoples living north of a line drawn between the Caucasus via the Alps to the Pyrenees. Sephardi Jews are those who have migrated westwards south of this line. Sepharad means Spain in Hebrew. The two separate cultures emerged in the 10th century and have only come together again in this century. They now observe each other's cuisines with some curiosity, if not suspicion, and Claudia Roden's book is the first in which they have been brought together.
Differences in the two styles of cuisine have to do with climate, soil and local produce, she says. The Ashkenazi world is a cold one, of chicken fat, onion and garlic, cabbage, carrots and potatoes, freshwater fish and salted herring. The Sephardi world is warm and offers peppers, aubergine, courgettes and tomatoes, rice and cracked wheat, saltwater fish and olive oil. The Ashkenazim were provincial people, often confined to ghettoes and restricted areas, liable to persecutions and expulsions. The Sephardim, by contrast, were concentrated in urban areas, ports and main cities. The Ashkenazim were concerned with spiritual and intellectual values; their women worked outside the home. The Sephardim pursued secular matters and were interested in the senses; women stayed at home and spent hours in the kitchen.
Claudia Roden makes no apology for the majority of her 800 recipes being for Sephardi dishes. Not only do they represent her own early Middle Eastern background (she moved to the Ashkenazi territory of Paris when she was 15 and later to Britain ), but other areas devoted to good food play their part, not least Italy (Sephardi). And who would have supposed the cooking of Indian Jewish communities would be so inspired?
As well as being an entertaining, investigative scholar, Claudia Roden is one of the finest cooks in Britain. So she could not be content with providing a mere anthology of recipes: only the best would do. Yet how do you find the best of literally hundreds of variations on meatballs and fish balls, stuffed vegetables, cheese pies, milk puddings, fritters in syrup, and so on?
She selected the comparable dishes from each country, and cooked them for friends, inviting them to judge. Not uncommonly, an example from France would receive more praise over the version from Britain or America. But even choosing just one per country was no easy task. "When I asked an Algerian for a Jewish cous cous, the reply was: 'From which town?' In every town it was different. In Morocco there are Jewish specialities from Fez, Tangier, Tetouan, Marrakesh, Ouezzane, Debdou and Essaouira and several Berber mountain villages have their own Jewish dishes."
Venice alone has four styles of Jewish cooking: Italian, German, Levantine and Spanish. Tunisia has two: Livornese from its Italian immigrants and the local "Tun", which has a Berber and Arab basis.
This volume may well be both the food history book of the year, and the cookbook of the year. We have chosen just one recipe to give a flavour of this wonderfully comprehensive work.
ALMODROTE DE BRENGENA
This is one of the most distinctive Jewish dishes of Turkey, and the one everyone mentions as their favourite. A similar dish of mashed aubergine, eggs and cheese is mentioned in the records of the Court of Inquisition in Spain as one that gave away Christian converts attached to their Jewish faith.
A mixture of feta and kashkaval cheese is traditionally used but others, such as Cheddar and Gruyere, are also used (by Turkish Jews in Britain) to very pleasing effect.
250g/8oz feta cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 large slices white bread, crusts removed
100g/3oz grated kashkaval or Gruyere
5 tablespoons sunflower oil
Prick the aubergines in a few places with a fork or a pointed knife and turn them under a grill, or roast them in the hottest oven, turning them once, for 45 minutes, or until the flesh feels very soft when you press and the skin is blistered and black. When they are cool enough to handle, peel or scoop out the flesh into a colander. Press with your hand to squeeze out as much of the juices as you can. Chop the flesh with two knives or, as is the custom in Turkey, mash it with a wooden spoon. Do not use a food processor - that would change the texture.
In a bowl, mash the feta cheese with a fork. Add the eggs, the bread (soaked in water and squeezed dry), the kashkaval or Gruyere (reserving two to three tablespoons) and four tablespoons of oil. Beat well. Add the aubergine and mix well. Pour the mixture into an oiled baking dish, sprinkle the top with one tablespoon of oil and the remaining grated cheese, and bake at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for about one hour, until lightly coloured.
Variation: For almodrote de kalavasa, use boiled and chopped courgettes instead of aubergines. !