If you were to say to me 'You're only allowed one cookery book, from today until the day you die, what's it going to be?' I'd opt for Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food. I was given a copy for my eighteenth birthday and over the past 13 years it has become the most well-thumbed cookery book in my collection. It's oil-spattered, saffron-stained, and water-marked. There are post-it notes stuck to pages reminding me of amendments to recipes. Leaf through it and event menus will fall out of it. And there's a quick reference sheet of my favourite recipes stuck in the front cover. Well-loved and often-used might describe its state.
I've a long list of reasons why I love this book so much. It starts with it being so comprehensive, looking at recipes from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds, taking you from New York to New Delhi on a gastronomic odyssey. You never feel as if Roden is preaching at you, either. It fits with my belief that recipes are guides, not prescriptions. She tells you how she has adapted the recipe herself and makes you realise that you can do the same. And, very importantly, these recipes work. Whether you want to make lentil soup or have a go at cooking calves' brains, this book will tell you how.
Most importantly, for me, though, this book reminds me that food is about people. It's about history and culture; about necessity and celebration. It shows how food brings together people and how it forges and then preserves identity. It embodies every reason why I love to cook.
Sometimes, it surprises or enlightens me, too. Somewhere amongst its 581 pages I'll find a recipe that's strangely familiar. It's something that I've been taught to cook, probably by my grandmother, and I know that it forms a part of our family history; it'll be something that one of my many-great grandmothers picked up in Spain or in Portugal, or in Italy, or in the Netherlands and now sits in my own stack of papers and gets served in my own dishes. Suddenly, I'll understand it better, and I'll understand my family that bit better, as well.
The book has a chapter at the beginning that explains the laws of kashrut, but somehow, they never seem to impinge upon the rest of it. You don't notice that there's no butter used in meat recipes, or that sauce bases are absent of lardons. It might be a book of Jewish food, but it's not written just for Jewish people; just as David Thompson's seminal Thai Food isn't for Thai people, and Kylie Kwong's remarkable My China is not for Chinese people, it's about the history and the culinary wonder that is Jewish food.
But then, Roden isn't a Jewish food writer. She's a food writer who is Jewish. So much of the book might be a personal family history for her, recalling her childhood in Cairo and talking about her family's roots right across the Middle East, but she uses that to illustrate and give depth to what she has to say. These aren't just her recipes, nor just those of her family. They're from people the world over, showing you just how far Jewish food has made it, and just how much it has drawn on the geography of where Jewish people find themselves.
Sure enough, if you think that Jewish food means beigels and smoked salmon, lokshen soup and salt beef, then this book will help you to see things differently. It has everything. It starts by talking about the food that is mentioned in the Bible and the Talmud and then it takes you through time and across the globe. You're invited to feasts and reminded that sometimes you have to make do with what you have. So you go from challah to orange and almond cake; borscht to yoghurt soups; coleslaw to caponata; chrayn to harissa; cabbages to aubergines; mamaliga and kasha to couscous and bulgur; wurst and egg to any way you can think of cooking lamb; gefilte fish to swordfish; and apple puddings to kulfis and sherbets. Any meal, anywhere.
It's been around since 1996; I've had my copy since 1997; I anticipate having it a whole lot longer.
The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, published by Knopf in the US and Penguin in the UK.