Interview with the authors of Samarkand

Credit: Laura EdwardsThe fascination with cookbooks that tell a tale of faraway lands, cultures and cuisines continues to gain momentum and I, for one, am thrilled with this growth. 

Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia & The Caucasus is such a cookbook. The authors Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford  share their love of this magical place in the pages of this title. Photographs that pulsate with the energy of the people and culture of Samarkand are plentiful. As is typical when I read a book this special, I want to plan a trip and wander the streets as the authors did, meet the people, taste the food and experience the magic.

After you read our interview with Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, be sure to enter our giveaway for a chance to win a copy of this title. Special thanks to the authors who are traveling the world collecting more stories for taking the time to answer our questions. 

The book is full of vibrant photographs of the people and food of Samarkand - which makes it easy to fall in love with this region. Caroline, when you first visited the area in 2009, did you have any idea that a cookbook would be in your future? What prompted the writing of Samarkand's story?

Caroline: In 2009, I was just pleased to arrive. I'd travelled solo, overland in a dust-choked mini-bus, from Tajikistan through the remote Fann Mountains. It was a rough ride with a dodgy, drawn-out border crossing and when I got to Samarkand, I was really relieved that this city, one that I'd built up in my mind over the years, didn't disappoint - it really was love at first sight.

This 'culinary travelogue' is the product of many journeys through the FSU (former Soviet Union) since 2009, frustration at other writers unfairly labeling the regional food as 'survival fare' and, of course, my more recent collaboration with Eleanor who is such a fantastic cook creator of beautiful recipes. I think the initial journey in 2009 probably did spark the idea for the book in the back of my mind. I tasted apricots in the High Pamirs that were outstandingly good. In the markets of Samarkand I discovered non-bread and met vendors from around the wider region. It was a real eye-opener. It was totally different to anywhere else in Asia I'd been to. Since 2009 I've been totally hooked on this part of the world and I'm lucky that my job as a journalist takes me there.

Eleanor: Caroline and I have been friends for a long time and I joined her in this project as a fellow lover of and writer about food and travel. She introduced me to this region and, as you say, it is one that is easy to fall in love with. The architecture in breathtaking, the fabric is fabulous (a lot of it is pictured in our book, not least the ikat on the cover that I found in an Uzbek market) and the food captured my imagination.  

There is much fascination with foreign culture of late - people want to learn more about international cuisines - I feel in part there is an underlying need to bring the world closer together. Would you agree with that assessment - that as lovers of culture and cuisine - we are all more alike than different?

Eleanor: Wherever I travel and eat in the world, I see similarities, common threads. We tend to have broad ideas about different types of foods that come from different countries. However regional differences can be marked, even in a small country like England where I'm from, and international similarities can be strong. Food culture isn't confined neatly within the lines of political borders.

In this book we have food all the way from Turkey to Uighur China. The reason the recipes fit together is the shared ingredients and cooking styles across these lands. Take for instance Central Asian manti (dumplings with a silky pasta exterior filled with spiced pumpkin or lamb) which share much in common with Chinese dumplings to the east and ravioli to the west, neatly bridging the gap between the two. Silk road traders once crossed these lands, taking with them both goods and cultural ideas from West to East and from East to West.

Caroline: I think that today, for those of us living in developed countries, it's true. Restaurants, media and air travel allow us to explore ever-more exotic tastes, connecting us to the wider world through food. Nowadays, most of us know the meaning of words like halal, halva and harissa. But we are a fortunate minority. For the developing world - especially outside of cities - my experience tells me that, with some exceptions (plov and manti and so on as shown in Samarkand), food remains pretty traditional and local. People stick to the seasons, family recipes and local produce. Most people around the world don't have the means or time to experiment with foreign foods like we do.

It is interesting to see how food trends enter far-flung cities, though, and what sticks. All across the former Soviet Union nowadays you'll find sushi restaurants, even in small cities in Siberia, not just Moscow where they've been eating it for years. As the middle and upper classes in developing countries travel to places like London and New York, they bring flavours back and slowly it filters down.

The recipes in Samarkand are intriguing and the photos are stunning. The Buttered Rice under a Shah's Crown - so simple yet so elegant. As I look through the recipes, they are not overly complicated but simple food prepared beautifully. Which recipes are your favorites?

Eleanor: I am delighted you like them. These are not cheffy recipes, Central Asia isn't somewhere with an established restaurant culture. The best food is always eaten in peoples' homes and I wanted to write recipes to reflect that. Some of the dishes are authentic, others are my interpretations inspired by the flavours of the region.

My favourites are those with unusual ingredient combinations. The apricot and red lentil soup for instance is spiked with a heady mixture of cumin seeds and fresh thyme. The same pairing is seen in the green olive and walnut salad but also with fresh dill, garlic and chilli.

The stories are captivating and I felt as if I was taking a vacation as I read through them. I enjoyed the beautifully woven narrative and particularly "To Kashgar for far flung noodles". Which story is most meaningful or personal to you?

Caroline: 'Lunch on the Road to Samarkand' sums up the challenges of travel in Central Asia, 'Foraging in the High Pamirs', shows how resilient and creative mountain-dwellers are in the region and 'Eating with the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan' shows how some foods crosses borders - we eat plov in the story, which is found throughout the region - and how you can find religious harmony in places where you least expect it.

Are there plans for future books either regarding Samarkand or other far off places?

Eleanor: I am always travelling, always cooking and always dreaming of projects to combine the two!

Caroline: Work - and recreational travel - has taken me all over recently. This year, I've been to Russia, Central Asia, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Australia, Austria, Hungary, Germany and France amongst other places, so my notebooks are getting pretty full.

We are all cookbook lovers here at Eat Your Books, please share with us any cookbook titles that hold a special meaning to either of you?

Eleanor: I'm a long-standing admirer of Diana Henry's writing. One of her first books, Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, was published just as I was entering into the world of food writing and was a great inspiration for me. I love how her recipes are simple and approachable for the home cook but also have a certain exotic magic from her clever combinations of flavours. It is a skill I try to emulate.

Caroline: I am reading Elisabeth Luard's new book 'Squirrel Pie' at the moment as I travel around Australia and as I taste Tasmanian oysters and modern bush-tucker (saltbush leaves, rosella flowers, finger limes etc., not kangaroo!) I am really enjoying reading her take on similar experiences. Diana Henry - our queen of home-cooking in the UK and owner of a truly impressive library- kindly gave me a copy of Joyce Goldstein's recent work, Mediterranean Jewish Table, and I am very much enjoying dipping into that. I also love anything - and everything - Yotam Ottolenghi does. I spent a lot of time in Israel in my 20's so I'm fascinated with the growing interest in Israeli food.

Photo credit: Laura Edwards

 

 

8 Comments

  • Kristjudy  on  10/3/2016 at 6:30 PM

    This is a brilliantly written article. Most interesting questions asked by author of this review. Book is now on my wish list!!!!

  • Madeleineandfriends  on  10/3/2016 at 6:35 PM

    I now have this book on order. It sounds really interesting. The interview questions stimulated my interest in the book and subsequent order.

  • laureljean  on  10/3/2016 at 6:40 PM

    This article gives me an excellent feel for the countries and their foods and the authors who bring both to life in this book.

  • IslandgirlOK  on  10/3/2016 at 9:38 PM

    Great interview! I love food from a variety of cultures, and this sounds so intriguing. Adding it to my Amazon cart right now.

  • FaithB  on  10/3/2016 at 9:49 PM

    This excellent interview give so much insight into this book, which relates to half of my own heritage. Just moved it to the top of my wish list!

  • marcsch  on  10/4/2016 at 5:52 AM

    Loved this article, and the book arrived his week. I'm even more excited to dig in and learn more. Thanks for the delicious preview!

  • CubanCoffee  on  10/5/2016 at 11:35 PM

    Really enjoyed this interview -- so much fun to see what books have inspired them (or what they're cooking from now!) too -- thank you!

  • Sharmiro  on  10/5/2016 at 11:51 PM

    I really enjoyed this--different and unusual. I like that it combines my favorite things: travel and food. Good stuff.

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