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Why central Asian cooking is like a Russian doll

The multilayered cuisine of central Asia and the Caucasus left me feeling envious in rainy Edinburgh.

I should have known better than to go to listen to a travel writer on a summer evening in Edinburgh. No sooner had Caroline Eden begun her slide show of vast steppes and snow-capped mountains, soaring mosques glittering under a sun I’d not seen in weeks, brightly coloured clothes in stark contrast to the gently steaming anoraks around me, than I felt dissatisfied with my lot. By the time the first market appeared on screen, with ripe fruit and veg spilling from the tables and bundled-up babushki selling bread the size of drain covers from old prams, I was already pondering the visa situation.

Central Asia and the Caucasus, the subject of Eden’s recipe book Samarkand (Kyle Books), co-written with Eleanor Ford, aren’t known for their food. The region isn’t well known for anything over here except, perhaps, its huge size and the odd (very odd) dictator.

Even Eden concedes that the cuisine of the Caucasus doesn’t have the sophistication or diversity of those of Turkey, on its western periphery, and China to the east. That central Asia has two such far-flung nations on either side, however, explains much of its appeal to the armchair eater. Still, I can well imagine the bemusement of publishers on being pitched a cookbook about a place whose best-known dish is prepared under a horse’s saddle (though it is doubtful whether the ’stans can even take the credit for steak tartare, which was originally known as beefsteak à l’américaine).

Not that the book bothers with such familiar fare when there is so much else of interest on the local menu. Samarkand, the so-called turquoise city, with its hopelessly seductive name, was once an important trading post on the Silk Road between Asia and Europe and, as such, it has been “at the crossroads of food culture for centuries”. Eden likens its cuisine to a Russian doll – layers of influence from every culture that has ever passed through, whether as a traveller or a conqueror.

Here you’ll find the thick, hand-pulled noodles of western China served next to the non-flatbreads and stuffed samsa pastries familiar from northern Indian cuisine and the perfumed, fluffy rice of the Middle East – as well as grilled lamb kebabs and tangy borscht, Korean pickles and Turkish dips, all washed down with floral tea, fermented camel milk, or copious amounts of vodka, in one of the peculiar contradictions of the region. Eden describes how, at the Issyk-Kul lakeside resort in Kyrgyzstan, Siberian holidaymakers drink “lethally strong” moonshine by the tumbler and gorge on the rare pleasure of fresh fruit.

The last surviving shtetl, or pre-Holocaust Jewish village, where people celebrate Shabbat with fruit-studded rice pilafs and Russian-style cabbage rolls, sits in the shadow of Azerbaijan’s Caucasus Mountains, while descendants of the tens of thousands of Koreans who were deported to central Asia by Stalin in the 1930s have spiced up the rather tame local palate with their chilli-rich kimchi and pickles. “No matter how remote the market in Uzbekistan, you will always find a Korean woman selling takeaway bags of carrot salad,” Eden says.

The climate is harsh and the terrain unforgiving yet this can also be a place of abundance. It once sent “fancy yellow peaches, large as goose eggs”, east to Tang dynasty rulers in China. “Melons the size of a horse’s head” are sold from battered Ladas by the roadside. In the forests of the Dzungarian alps, in eastern Kazakhstan, “Thousands of acres of wild apples flourish, untouched by man.” Further west, the markets of Baku, in Azerbaijan, boast aubergines as big as rugby balls, plump and golden raisins, and fat, green pistachios.

“Every time I visit,” Eden says, “I wonder why more people don’t know about this amazingly good food.” But now, thanks to her, the secret is finally out. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.