Samarkand – Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus

by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford

In recent months we have seen a small flood of books examining and celebrating the great ancient trading routes. Peter Frankopan’s masterly Silk Roads is perhaps the pick of these historical accounts, but travel and cookery writers Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford have taken a very different approach in their gorgeous new book, Samarkand. Combining travellers’ tales with traditional refreshments, Eden’s evocative writing and Ford’s lavishly-illustrated recipes give an almost three-dimensional feel to this atmospheric account of the semi-mythical places along the old spice and silk roads.

One of the frequent gripes about cookery books is the difficulty of obtaining the necessary exotic ingredients, but while it’s true that we might search the shelves of Booth’s in vain for barberries or Aleppo pepper, most of these recipes require nothing which is not readily available in the average supermarket. Besides, this very exoticism is the whole point; the writers have visited places which are well off even the least beaten of tracks, so we should have to work a little bit to achieve satisfactory results.

The mouthwatering recipes and glorious photographs are reason enough to buy this book but, as the title suggests, there are also stories to be told. Caroline Eden is an experienced writer and traveller and she has combines historical research with a keen eye for detail, giving us a tantalising picture of life in these remote places. The very names of Samarkand and Tashkent conjure up pictures of mysterious travellers, richly-coloured fabrics and spectacular architecture, and through a combination of storytelling and glorious photography we are given an insight into how the current inhabitants of the Spice Route live their lives. The migratory existence of their forebears is still a reality for many, so there is a strong sense of shifting borders, blending of cultures, and racial and religious ambiguities. Our lives in the West seem caricatured and strictly delineated in comparison.

The book is laid out traditionally enough, looking at starters, meat dishes, breads and drinks among other things, but the recipes are interspersed with gobbets of background information on ingredients, history and, most interestingly, the way in which the various meals are actually eaten by those living along the route. Thus a simple dish like a pilaf is given context and layers of extra meaning when we are told how, when and where the authors actually tasted it for the first time, whether on the hoof or in the cosier surroundings of a family home. Sometimes particular ingredients will be tasted in the very place where they are found, which adds an authenticity which we cannot match when tossing them into our trolley, but perhaps this is just a more extreme version of 'eat local,' an approach followed even in darkest Yorkshire.

Anyone can put together a set of recipes but here the context is everything. The text, the artfully-photographed dishes and the fabulous photographs combine perfectly to show us a world of silks and spices, of relative poverty and richness of sound and colour. The authenticity guaranteed by the lengths to which the authors have gone to taste this food makes the book all the more worth reading. I can’t decide what I want to do first; cook a delicious plov or head off to Tashkent to sample it in its proper home.

by Mike Sansbury