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.

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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