When travel writer Caroline Eden visited the city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, she was immediately taken not only by a skyline framed with domed mosques and Soviet-era monolithic buildings, but by bazaars overflowing with exquisite produce and street foods from many cultures. A deeper dive into the ancient city, a key stop on the Silk Road beginning in the sixth century and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, revealed that it was truly a culinary crossroads. The idea for a book took form.
Eden, who lives in Edinburgh, teamed with her friend Eleanor Ford, a food writer based in London, to create a book of essays and recipes that look at the complex cultural influences of central Asia. Their new book, "Samarkand: Recipes & Stories From Central Asia & the Caucasus," looks at the region through the cuisines of seven groups that left their mark on Samarkand: Tajiks, Russians, Turks, Jews, Koreans, Caucasians, and Uzbeks. Over several years of working on the project, Eden visited a dozen times and Ford spent time in the kitchens of home cooks and restaurants to create recipes highlighting flavors of the region.
Q. What made this an important story to tell?
Ford: Most people aren't really aware what happens between Asia and Europe. They're vaguely aware there are some "-stans" there.
Eden: It's so negative, that suffix. It really just means "people of." People think war, dictators. It's not all rosy there all the time, but obviously there's more to it. Uzbekistan's population is about 30 million. It's the most populous central Asian country. It's always politics that you read about in the news. I wanted to show another side, the wonderful people I meet when I travel there.
Q. You write about amazing produce available in the markets. Could you describe it?
Eden: Uzbekistan is a very fertile country, and Samarkand is in the Zeravshan Valley, and they have got the most fantastic, naturally organic sun-ripened fruit and vegetables.
Ford: The markets are brimming with the most wonderful bunches of coriander and dill and tarragon and purple basil that's scattered in abundance over the food. Then also there's wonderful fresh nuts and fresh fruits that are added a lot to the food, even savory foods. You'll get sweet-savory mixtures. You'll have pomegranates, quince, fresh mulberries, melon, and tart bursts from barberries and currants.
Q. You describe Samarkand as a "melting pot." How is that reflected in its cuisine?
Ford: There are some dishes that are really influenced by Chinese cooking, for example laghman, which is a meaty noodle dish. It is based on the Chinese dish lo mein. When you have it in central Asia, it will have dill in it, which is such a typical flavor of central Asia. If you turn west, you're coming over to Persia, and there they're using the nuts and the fruits scattered through the rice dishes, and the herbs as well. Turn north [and] you have Russia. One of my favorite recipes in the book is for apricot soup. Apricots are really prized in the region. This soup is flavored with thyme, which is such a flavor of the West, and also cumin, which is a flavor of the East. The two together aren't often used, but they work so well. It's a real fusion dish.
Q. How did Korea come to be one of the cultural influences there?
Eden: Stalin had exiled a large number of Koreans just before the Second World War. He sent them there and they stayed on. You can find them in most markets in central Asia. Very friendly ladies, all producing the same thing: spicy carrot salad.
Ford: One of the most famous Korean dishes, kimchi, they couldn't make in central Asia. They didn't have the right kind of cabbage. They adapted the salad to carrot salad, because that's what is more prevalent in central Asia. It's wonderfully spicy and a nice contrast to the more mild dishes.
Q. As a visitor to Samarkand, how easy is it to find these exciting dishes?
Eden: If you go to the markets, they're brilliant places to interact with locals and you'll be impressed as if you were in a market in one of the best European food cities. They have everything. The tourist restaurants in Samarkand are not very good. Because I'm a journalist, I've been lucky to get into people's homes. There, people are feeding their families fantastic food. Home stays are opening up and people are staying more with families.
Q. What's most special about the food of Samarkand?
Ford: I think it's the fusion of flavors. The ingredients you come across for most dishes are similar. But somehow, the way that they're combined, you can just really taste the different cultures and heritage around you. It's amazing how with just a few spices or with the use of nuts and herbs, somehow there can be such difference in these dishes.