G Force

The mix in Spain’s cuisine

(Tony French)
By Jialu Chen
Globe Staff / June 22, 2011

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Q. When did you begin collecting recipes?

A. In 1957 there was the Suez War. President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided the Jews would have to leave. We left and thousands of people left at the time. And one thing everyone was asking each other for was recipes. Because they thought we’d never see each other again. At least we’d have recipes to remember. And that’s when I started collecting.

Q. How did you research “The Food of Spain’’?

A. I spent five years researching this book. Most people think I must be mad to have taken so long. I started traveling, visiting friends all over Spain. They introduced me to other people in other parts of Spain. At the same time, I read a lot of regional books, some from the past. I wanted to experience the food and also read up about all the different ways it could be done simultaneously. I also had to find the best recipe of a dish. For example, there were many rice puddings. I tried every one. The rice pudding I found is made in Navarre, which has a French influence.

Q. What have been the major influences on Spanish cooking?

A. A lot of the food that you now find in tapas bars were foods that Muslims — who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition in order to stay in Spain — sold on the street. They were doing deep fried fish, pinchos morunos [little kebabs], empanadas, and omelets. The thick Spanish omelet is actually an Arab omelet. Most of the pastries of Spain were convent pastries that are actually Jewish in origin. When Jews were forced to convert during the Inquisition, many became priests and nuns in order to protect their families. The nuns and their maids continued to make, eat, and sell Jewish cakes. For example, the tarte de Santiago de Compostela is traditionally eaten by pilgrims visiting the bones of St. James in Galicia. The main ingredients — ground almonds, orange peel, and lemon peel — aren’t native to Galicia because the cake is actually a Jewish Passover cake. A whole culture developed out of many layers of culture.

Q. What do you want readers to take away from this book?

A. I want them to get to love Spain and to understand Spain. Spain had a different history from any country in Europe: a society of poor peasants and warring aristocrats. It wasn’t a culture of pleasure, like French culture was. Once you understand that, you understand what their food represents and what their food says.

Q. Are the Spanish dishes well known here also popular in Spain?

A. Those are actually the most popular foods in Spain. The bread and tomato is really Catalan, Valencia, and Andalusia — Mediterranean Spain. But the omelet is popular in every part of Spain. Paella is from Valencia, but it has become popular everywhere.

Q. Is Spanish cuisine different today from the past?

A. I find that now younger people in their 20s and early 30s cook with olive oil instead of lard. They are cooking lighter, baking instead of frying, and are more conscious of when to add each ingredient. But even the newest wave of innovative young chefs in Spain, who want to cook with machines and syringes and do sous vide and freeze-dried cooking, also want to evoke memories and emotions from their regional roots. Because Spaniards are still very, very proud of their regions.

Interview was condensed and edited. Jialu Chen can be reached at

Claudia Roden
The Egyptian-born cookbook author studied in Paris and has lived north of London for many decades. In her nearly dozen volumes, she strives to provide the significance and background of each dish. Among her many awards has been the James Beard Cookbook of the Year in 1997 for “The Book of Jewish Food,’’ and induction into the James Beard Hall of Fame in 2010 for “A Book of Middle Eastern Food.’’ Her new book, “The Food of Spain,’’ a comprehensive guide from the Canary Islands to Catalonia, offers piperade, tomato bread, paella, and more.