Samarkand: Recipes & Stories From Central Asia & The Caucasus, by Caroline Eden & Eleanor Ford
My standards for cookbooks are not too demanding. I enjoy reading about ideas for foods that I already know I like that are unusual and perhaps a bit exotic but above all sound tasty and are somewhat simple. Like most people, I am not particularly aware of the cuisine of Central Asia although I have some interest in the area . This book definitely made me curious about the cuisine of the area, and any time a book makes me want to eat the cuisine of an area, even a few dishes of that cuisine–and this book certainly does the trick–I consider it time well spent. I read cookbooks to get ideas for new dishes and to at least expand my interest in trying new dishes and new combinations of food items, being a person of rather plain and perhaps even boring tastes, so this was definitely a pretty exotic set of cuisines to look for. As Central Asia and the Caucasus have been places with a great many influences from Russia, China, the Middle East, among other places, the food is suitably diverse, which should suit many readers.
This book combines two genres together to good effect. Most of this book consists of recipes divided into various sections based on the type of food they have as their base or the place where the foods come from: a shared table (appetizers), soups, roast meats and kebabs, warming food for long winters, plovs and pilafs, side dishes, breads & doughs, drinks, desserts and sweetmeats. Interspersed with this are various stories about travels or about unusual places and people that the authors met in the course of their exploration of the foods of the region(s). This included mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, the second largest city of Kyrgystan, and the Pamirs of mountainous Tajikistan. The stories are fascinating and they help provide a context for the recipes. At first I thought the recipes were pretty undistinguished with a lot of ingredients I didn’t like. The book warmed on me, though, and soon I was reading about omelettes with chicken and chestnuts, one-pot dishes with lamb, potato, and vegetables, flatbreads, tasty chicken dishes, and various rice dishes of interest including pumpkins stuffed with rice. The amount of yummy dishes by the end of the book definitely met my hopes and expectations, which meant that I enjoyed the book far more towards the end than at the beginning when there was too much tomato, cucumber, and eggplant for my tastes.
As the authors note, there is a certain degree of romance in Samarkand as a place. An entrepot of trade since before the time of Alexander the Great, the surrounding areas around the Black, Caspian, and Aral seas has been fought over by many empires and has accepted a great deal of influences from many areas. This book did a good job at including a wide variety of ingredients ranging from hazelnuts from the cost of Trebizon to Russian vodkas and cakes to Korean spicy carrot dishes and kimchi. Reading this book gave me the impression that there was a lot more to Central Asian cuisine than this book included, but also that there was much in this cuisine that would be enjoyable to try even if not all of the ingredients of that cuisine were to my liking. As a person of fairly broad and somewhat experimental tastes when it comes to food dishes made with ingredients that I happen to like in new combinations and with herbs and spices, there was much that I found appealing and much that I think would be appealing to similarly adventuresome readers and eaters like myself.
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