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Author Caroline Eden on her culinary journey through Central Asia

For travel writer Caroline Eden, people and food are at the heart of every trip. In her latest book she journeys through Central Asia, bringing the region to life with recipes garnered along the way.

By Heather Taylor
Published 13 Nov 2020, 08:00 GMT
Caroline Eden discovers food through the lens of a travel writer, using recipes to help tell a story.

Caroline Eden discovers food through the lens of a travel writer, using recipes to help tell a story.

Photograph by Ola O Smit

What sparked your interest in Central Asia?

I worked in London as a bookseller, and to earn some extra money I got a job with a travel company based in Hong Kong, which was publishing lots of guidebooks on Central Asia. I worked on one focused on Tajikistan, and in 2009 I decided to go. It was incredible, especially since there were hardly any tourists back then. I started travel writing to fund more trips.

How did you make the leap to food writing?

The guidebooks I worked on always made out the food [in Central Asia] was terrible. I was so disappointed with this myth, because that hadn’t been my experience. When I ate in people’s houses, the food was amazing, and the markets were full of fantastic produce. Just because it’s not to our palates, doesn’t mean the cuisine isn’t worth exploring.

Why do you think this misconception exists?

I think there’s a lack of understanding. Because Central Asia was part of the Soviet Union — even though that collapsed in 1991 — people still have this idea of a lack of food. But it’s just not true; Uzbekistan has been settled for hundreds of years, and where you have settled people, you get interesting food cultures.

Discover three recipes from Caroline's cookbook

How did you plan the trip for this book?

I wanted to explore Kazakhstan, as it was a country I’d seldom visited. It’s vast — the ninth-largest nation in the world — and hasn’t really tapped into tourism. I’d heard about desert mosques in the far west, close to the Caspian Sea. This seemed like the best place to start, so I worked my way east from there, through the lush Rasht Valley, where the food and produce are amazing. I had a vague plan, but there were surprises along the way.

What did you discover in the mosque kitchens?

They’re incredible. Islam arrived in Central Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries, and the region has mosques to sufi saints in underground buildings. During Soviet times, people would go there secretly to pray. They have slaughterhouses and kitchens there cooking very basic food, such as plov — a traditional, layered rice dish. I found it incredible that the kitchens exist to feed pilgrims.

The travel writer started her culinary journey in Kazakhstan, working her way east through the lush Rasht Valley.

Photograph by Theodore Kaye

How did you gather the recipes?

I come to the food and the recipes as a travel writer first, and used the recipes to help tell the story — almost like photographs. I’m not an anthropological recipe researcher; I’m an outsider, and I don’t claim to be authentic. All the recipes are simply memories of meals and meetings, which I’ve recreated back home.

Which flavours best signify Central Asian cuisine?

They use a lot of really good-quality, fresh cumin, and they have a fat, reddish-coloured rice that you just can’t get over here. You also see a lot of quince — in jam or used to flavour rice dishes.

What are some of the typical dishes of the region?

Samsa — which I love — are flaky pastries filled with lamb, cumin and onions. They’re for sale on street corners and have light spicing, which is very typical. And plov. People are very precious about it, and it’s a simple recipe — lamb, mutton or beef with rice, carrots, onions and maybe a head of garlic in the middle, cooked in a big cauldron, with quail’s eggs, barberries and quince, depending on the season. It’s incredible — great hangover food. And lots of green or black tea, and vodka.

Which memory of your trip is the most poignant?

The story that moved me the most is in my essay ‘Mosque’, which takes place in the city of Almaty. We went to a neighbourhood where there’s a big population of Uyghurs [a Turkic-speaking minority ethnic group], had an incredible dinner at a local restaurant (we ate an amazing, spicy tofu dish) and ended up chatting to local people who told us their stories of persecution. It was during Ramadan, and they invited us to come and see the mosque for their iftar feast the following night. We were their guests of honour — it was incredibly moving.

Caroline Eden's book Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland, is published by Quadrille. RRP £25

Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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