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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

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If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game