During research trips for her book The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden visited a cookery school outside Granada. She asked the head chef there about his cultural and culinary influences. By this time, in the 2000s, Spanish gastronomy – like some, but not all, sections of the country as a whole – had begun to throw off long centuries of rejection and persecution to embrace the nation’s mixed-up multi-ethnic, multi-cultural past. A neurotic, even violent, refusal to acknowledge the Islamic and Judaic roots of so much of everyday life in Spain had given way to what Roden calls ‘a mixture of denial and appreciation’. So which food styles held sway in this historically-informed Andalusian kitchen? ‘Arab and Jewish,’ the chef proudly replied. Roden pressed for an example. ‘How to cook pork.’
Not surprisingly, that curious claim brought the revered author of cookery classics such as A Book of Middle Eastern Food, Arabesque and The Book of Jewish Food up short. Her wonderfully informative, but thoroughly practical, guides to kitchen history, methods and folklore across the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean basin will tell you how, and why, to cook just about anything – from kibbeh to kataifi– except the flesh of the pig. Confirmed by Roden’s meticulous culinary sleuthing, the chef’s justification not only reveals a secret at the heart of Spanish identity. It illustrates the kind of background revelation that she uses to enrich every recipe.
After the ‘reconquest’ of Spain by Christian rulers, which concluded in the capture of the Moorish emirate of Granada in 1492, millions of Muslims and Jews who had lived in the Iberian peninsula for many centuries converted, more by force than choice, to the new monopoly religion of these lands. However, their customs, their rituals, their languages – and above all their food – proved impossible to eradicate. Those traces of a multi-faith history, dating back at least to the earliest Arab incursions in 711 endured long after the mass, but never-completed, expulsion of the Moriscos (‘New Christians’ from Muslim families) that began in 1609.