I had been cooking for only a few years when, in 1972, a friend gave me “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” by a woman named Claudia Roden. In my cooking life, there was no more important influence than that book. . .
We started with lentils with noodles and caramelized onions. I remembered the first time I made this dish and how thrilled I was at the combination of legume and pasta (not rice!) and the sweetness of the nearly burned onions. We moved on to a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, cooked with couscous and dates, a delicious combination of sweet and savory whose aroma is almost unbelievably enticing. And we finished with what she calls knafeh à la crème, a beautiful pie of kadayif (essentially shredded phyllo, which goes under a variety of similar-sounding names) filled with a cream thickened with rice flour and scented with orange-flower water, a dish that is as exotic now as Roden’s first round of recipes was to me 40 years ago.
I had that cookbook in the 70s and loved it, too. The seasoning was far away from a white suburban cracker had ever been exposed to and a lot of the stuff exploded with flavor in my mouth. If you can find a copy of it and love Middle Eastern food, pick it up. You won't be sorry.