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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: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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