One of the greatest pleasures of any travel experience is getting to know the local food scene. While some destinations are well known for their cuisines (step forward India and Vietnam), others remain hidden gems. Caroline Eden’s latest book surfaces just a few of these. Written with her co-worker Eleanor Ford, Samarkand throws a spotlight on Central Asia and the Caucasus. Heavily influenced by the nations that surround them, their flavours and cooking techniques are as varied as they are unique. From tabletop staples to culinary eccentricities, Samarkand offers a real insight into a relatively undiscovered food scene.
We caught up with Caroline to chat about her ultimate recipe recommendations, the cuisines that have captured her heart and her most memorable experiences on the road…
TL: Can you tell us a bit about your latest book Samarkand?
Samarkand is a collection of travel/food essays and 100 or so recipes (created by my co-author, Eleanor Ford) that highlight a side of Central Asia and the Caucasus that we rarely hear about - the food! The historical city of Samarkand is used as a peg to bring together the cuisines and food traditions of seven ethnic groups who left their mark on Samarkand over the centuries – the Tajiks, Russians, Turks, Jews, Koreans, Caucasians and the Uzbeks themselves.
TL: There are many mouthwatering dishes, desserts and drinks found within Samarkand’s pages, which do you most enjoy cooking at home?
Probably Summer Borscht with Soured Cream and Chives, it’s so easy and refreshing.
TL: Any advice for those wanting to experience the Caucasus and Central Asia?
Learn to read Russian, plan ahead for visas and don’t believe the hype that this region is a hot-bed of terrorism as some American newspapers have recently (mis)reported.
TL: Of the countries you have visited, which had the cuisine that most captured your heart?
I have a big soft spot for Tajikistan. Wonderful oyster mushrooms and apricots grow in the High Pamirs, and in the cities many chefs display more than a dash of Persian flair in their cookery, harking back to their Persian heritage.
TL: What are your favourite memories of your travel and research experiences? Any great stories to share?
They are countless, but to focus on food: I found Shakarob (a simple salad of flaky fatir flatbread, tomatoes, onion and yogurt), or Tajik bread salad as the recipe in the book is called, to be a lifesaver after a hard day travelling through the dusty Fann Mountains. I write about this long travel day and thirst quenching salad in my essay Lunch on the road to Samarkand, in the book. I also love qutabs from Azerbaijan, herb filled flatbreads eaten with sour cream. These are a great example of the fastest of fast-foods, and healthy-ish too. The freshest ones I’ve eaten have been not in Baku’s posh restaurants but have been cooked on a convex griddle on the side of the road, brushed quickly with fresh melted butter.
TL: We often hear from our customers that they are constantly surprised by the different cultures and traditions they encounter while travelling. Have any of the destinations you’ve visited and researched overturned your expectations?
I think travellers are often surprised that Uzbekistan – a place so heavy with history - is modernizing so quickly in some aspects. There are Spanish-built, high-speed trains, 17 million active SIM cards and, in the capital, Tashkent, the trams are being replaced by bigger bus and metro networks.
TL: Our ethos is all about bringing travellers as close as possible to local expertise. Have you ever been saved by a bit of local advice?
Many over the years, but in this part of the world the best piece of advice I was given was: always accept an invitation to dinner.
TL: What’s next for you? Where’s the next place you will be visiting and what will you be writing about?
I’m off to Ukraine in a fortnight to write about the Eurovision Song Contest and to return to Odessa, in the south, a city I’m currently researching.
Make it happen
To hear more from Caroline, and to get a closer look at Samarkand, check out her website: www.carolineeden.com. Alternatively, if you feel inspired to take on Central Asia or the Caucasus for yourself, why not send an enquiry to one of our local experts? Check out our destination pages for more information!