Caroline Eden, a travel and food writer, concludes her new book, Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland, with the words “You can learn a lot over a good lunch.”
Indeed, you can learn a lot over Central Asian lunch. Food in this region means so much: It is a vehicle of hospitality, a marker of identity, a field for talent competition, and—above all—an embodiment of the region’s bountiful spirit, its peoples, places, and nature. Eden’s book is not a mere recipe book and descriptive travelogue, but a lively reportage of her personal encounters and culinary adventures written in rich language through which you can smell and taste the food as well as talk to the people who make it.
Please tell us when your journey to Central Asia began and why it became culinary?
It started in 2009 when I landed in Dushanbe and travelled on to the Pamirs and then back down to Samarkand—this was my first time visiting the region. My travels through India had led me to Central Asia because, like so many others, I was enthralled by the Mughal architecture I’d stood in front of there, such as the Red Fort in Delhi. The founder of the Mughal Empire was, of course, Babur, who was born in Fergana and is buried in Kabul. My first book, Samarkand, covers Central Asia and the South Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) and was a sort of gentle introduction. I initially started writing about Central Asian food because I got fed up with guidebooks referring to food in Central Asia as “survival fare.”
Her latest book, Red Sands, published by Quadrille in 2020, is the follow-up to Black Sea. It is a reimagining of traditional travel writing using food as the jumping-off point for exploring Central Asia. Black Sea was published by Quadrille in 2018. A wholly new format, fusing travel narrative with recipe book, it is the tale of a journey between three great cities: from Odessa, built on a dream by Catherine the Great; through Istanbul, the fulcrum balancing Europe and Asia; and on to tough, stoic, lyrical Trabzon. Black Sea won the Art of Eating Prize, the John Avery Award at the Andre Simon Awards, Best Travel and Food Book of the Year at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards, and Best Food Book at the Guild of Food Writers Awards 2019. Her first book, Samarkand—Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, was published by Kyle Books in 2016. It was a Guardian “Book of the Year” in 2016 and went on to win the Guild of Food Writers Food and Travel award in 2017.
Yes, the food in tourist restaurants isn’t always great, but step into people’s homes and it’s another story entirely. And it does keep on improving, year after year, in the touristy cafés, too. It’s obvious, really, when you see how good the markets are—you think, surely there’s a lot more going on than the café menus suggest. Later, I found food to be an excellent vehicle for discussing all manner of things, and in Red Sands, my new book, I discuss everything from the giant walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan to a remarkable cake shop in northern Kazakhstan and how milk cartons in Karaganga tell the tale of the Karlags.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, some Russian restauranteurs complained that the Central Asian food market was very limited: not enough fresh ingredients, since fish and seafood are usually imported frozen, and too limited a variety of fresh vegetables. Do you find the cuisine limited and would it benefit from more open culinary exchanges? You have all sorts of recipes, including Russian and Uighur—what do you think of this mix?
The markets in Central Asia are, of course, all different but if you take a food bazaar, say, in the Fergana Valley, in autumn, it would be extremely shortsighted to dismiss it. There, you will find the finest fresh fruits available in the world (pomegranates, pears, apples, grapes), a spectacular range of locally sourced nuts and dried fruits, freshly baked breads, wonderful honeys, fresh dairy produce, pickled salads… Thank goodness, the markets are not overflowing with imported foods—that would be a tragedy. Of course, there are some imports—Turkish and Russian processed foods (I’m thinking mainly of chocolates), goods from China—but they’re not the majority… It is exactly the sort of scene that the smartest cities in the Western world try to imitate, with “farmers’ markets,” at vastly inflated prices. I’d say that any Russian restauranteur who complained about this was either misinformed or had perhaps spent almost no time in Central Asia.
Your recipes have become very popular on Twitter. How did you obtain and test them so quickly? Have you tried to modify them—for instance, do Central Asians really pickle cauliflower? How did you select them for your book?
The recipes in Red Sands are a mixture. Some were gathered from locals and friends whose homes I stayed in, some are from restaurants, others are imaginative and were inspired by historical events or people. I test them at home, obviously, and I have a friend who is an excellent home cook who tests them with me (I pay her a modest fee for this). On pickled cauliflower, it is popular in the markets where Korean-style salads are sold. Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar, Khujand’s Panjshanbe market, and Shymkent’s various bazaars, for example, have vendors selling jars and bags of pickled salads and pickled cauliflower.
For a recipe to be included, usually it needs to add to the narrative in some way or to catch the feel of a place or time. Take bread in Tashkent, for example: bread is a way of talking about the city—it is “the city of bread,” a place of relative abundance and refuge for people who arrived from elsewhere in the USSR during very hard times, such as famine and war. The city was a shelter. There is a recipe (both for non bread and for bread pudding), but only because, more importantly, there is also a story about the poet Anna Akhmatova’s time in Tashkent in the 1940s.
Many of the places you have visited are simple, with friendly owners/workers with whom you make a personal connection. How about high-end places? What can you say about them?
That most of them aren’t very good? I am only half joking. I rarely eat in flashy places, usually because they are more interested in what people are wearing and what they are drinking than in what is coming out of the kitchen. They also never seem to last for very long. For myself, I prefer to go to established places where families and workers eat.
Your book is not only about food but more about places and people (and even seasons!). Which have been the most memorable encounters?
Food is woven throughout the book and I like to say that it forms the first step, and the last, but it is not the whole story: for me, people—and their stories—come first. Memorable encounters are many, but let me name two. I am extremely fond of Imenjon Mahmudov, in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, who has become a friend over the years and who cooks an insanely good plov made with local Uzgen rice—short, fat, reddish, and supremely flavorsome—little peeled eggs from the quails in his courtyard, and local quince and carrots. He has fantastic stories to tell about cooking for mountaineers at the Peak Lenin base camp, including famous climbers such as Anatoli Boukreev, known as a “lung with legs.” Boukreev was depicted in the 2015 blockbuster film “Everest.” I also think often of the poet-botanist Mirzoshah Akobirov, in whose orchard, deep in the Rasht Valley in Tajikistan, I stayed. An incredible man—a singer, a musician, a poet, and a brilliant gardener—and one of the most hospitable people I have ever met.
You prepared for your journey by reading many travelers’ accounts. Which ones were helpful?
I carried two books with me on the journeys I took when researching Red Sands, both of which are very useful and interesting. The first is Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand by Isabella “Ella” Robertson Christie, published in 1925. It is an account of her two journeys to this region, in 1910 and 1912. Ella was a formidable and sharp-eyed traveler, born in 1861 close to my adopted city of Edinburgh. Her musings provided constant reminders to travel unhurriedly but deliberately, to observe quietly, and to examine life both high and low. To indulge a hunger for the world, but to go slowly and stay busy by simply being there. What sets Ella Christie’s work apart from better-remembered writers on this region, such as Peter Hopkirk and Sir Fitzroy Maclean, are her commonplace observations and her motivation. Rather than setting out to spy, break records or gain accolades, she took pleasure in observing and noting the domestic and commonplace—cooking, clothing, and workshops—in great detail.
The second writer is John Wardell, also British, who recorded his years living in Kazakhstan in a fascinating and well-written book entitled In the Kirghiz Steppes (historically, the Kazakh steppe was referred to as Kirghiz) that is sadly little-read today. He arrived in 1914, on his 25th birthday, to mine copper for the tsar, having left London 16 and a half days earlier. He witnessed Kazakhstan on the eve of industrialization and delighted in the seasons changing. He cataloged the flora—yellow irises, marigolds, wild sage, and bitter lemony southernwood—and noted horses’ hooves bruising the herbs so that the air was redolent with perfume. These are far from impossible images. On my own journey through the Kazakh steppe in early summer, red poppies stretched blazing and livid for hundreds of miles and I crushed strongly scented wild mint and thyme underfoot. Wardell’s book, as I carried it with me, was a physical reminder of the value of recording the present, of noting people, places and countries at a time of development and transformation.
All photos provided by Caroline Eden