Interview with Caroline Eden | Red Sands
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Caroline Eden: Hi, my name is Caroline Eden. I’m the author of Black Sea and Red Sands, which is my new book, Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia from Hinterland to Heartland.
Suzy Chase: Last we chatted was in August, 2019 and you were on to celebrate my 150th episode with Black Sea. Welcome back and happy, happy new year. It has to be a happy new year!
Caroline Eden: Thanks very much for having me back on Suzy and really nice to be here.
Suzy Chase: So how does the landscape shape the food in Central Asia?
Caroline Eden: That’s a good question. Central Asia is a vast sways of the middle of Asia, the Heartland of Asia and I concentrate on four of the five countries of Central Asia in this book. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Put most simply there are two groups traditionally, historically within Central Asia, the nomads and the settled people of towns and cities, which have scattered along The Silk Road, the nomads were very dependent on what they had to hand out on The Steppe that was meat, horse meat, generally, and, sheep, mutton and the milk that their animals produced. So meat and milk, very, very basic diet and the people in the settled places more in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and parts of Turkmenistan, which I don’t feature in the book, had access to far greater produce, produce that was coming in from East to West West to East and access to orchards big irrigation systems leading in from the rivers. Very good nut and fruit forests and access to meat and some fish as well in the river so that’s really how it’s split. It’s between the settled people in the towns and villages and the people who are out with livestock out in The Steppe.
Suzy Chase: So that’s what I was going to ask you, why isn’t Turkmenistan in this book.
Caroline Eden: I really struggled with whether to include Turkmenistan or not because it’s a fascinating country on the Caspian Sea, a lot of great, interesting historical stories, which I could have pulled out from the country however, it’s run by a dictator at the moment and reporting there freely is really problematic. So you can go and I could have gone, but outside of the city, the capital city Ashgabat, I would have been given a guide and would have been quite restricted to how I could travel and talk to people and that’s not really how I like to travel when I’m researching these books I like to go slowly and speak to people freely and respectfully and sort of take my time and I felt if I went, it would be slightly controlled so I chose not to go at this time.
Suzy Chase: So Red Sands consists of two parts, two main parts, spring and autumn. You start in the springtime shores of the Caspian Sea out West and the largest country in the region, oil rich Kazakhstan and you open the book and Aktau West Kazakhstan walking on the promenade of the Caspian Sea. You called it a city of edited geography and simulated environments. I’m curious to hear about that.
Caroline Eden: Great. I’m glad you, I’m glad you brought this up because I was really fascinated with Aktau. It’s a curious place. So the Ukrainians and the Russians built it basically in the 1950s, there wasn’t anything there before. And the way that it’s laid out today is there are not addresses as we would know them I mean quite different in New York to say London but we don’t have blocks as you know, we have streets and the addresses are different, but that they just have numbers say the addresses read like telephone numbers so you’ll have a block and then a flat number and that will be contained within a micro district, which is quite a sort of Soviet design, not that unusual, but in Aktau there’s only really a few street names of the major thoroughfares, which run through and it’s a really interesting place. I don’t think it really gets any tourism and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. I mean, Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world and you can get off well, you’re off the beaten track if you’re out with the two main setters Nursultan and Almaty, but Aktau is really far out geographically it’s very, very remote and apart from that sort of city and a few oil, this is sort of the oil part of Kazakhstan, oil cities, you’re into The Desert Steppe very quickly and absolutely remote fantastically beautiful. So yeah, we start there, which it felt like a natural place to start.
Suzy Chase: Talk a little bit about lunch in the Kyzylkum Desert, which means, I guess it means red sand?
Caroline Eden: Yeah, that’s true. I was traveling through the Kyzylkum Desert a few years back now and we stopped for lunch, I think it was about a six hour drive and this building sort of appeared in the scrubby desert and this isn’t sort of like rolling sand dunes it’s quite scrubby with bushes and things growing and that sort of landscape and this desert cafe appeared almost out of nowhere and the sort of saffron colored scrub, which is perfect timing. So we went in for lunch. I had a driver with me and they were making a very basic menu there you basically ate what you could smell, so you could smell the bread. They had a tandoor oven, so a beautiful, fresh chewy in the middle crisp underneath bread, shashlik you know, like skewered meat, lovely smell of that sort of smoke corkscrewing up from the grill, some little onion rings and tea. So I sat and I had this lunch and it just struck me how entirely suited it was to its remote surroundings, this lunch. And I’d never sort of eaten anyway, but so simple yet so harmoniously in tune with its really quite extreme environment and that kind of sums up Central Asia when you get out of the cities. The food is pretty simple and authentic in the sense that it’s not really changed for a very long time and I just had a bit of a moment really, and I thought this is quite remarkable. I also quartered a watermelon, which I talk about in the book as well, and shared that round with some men that were sat at the raised tea bed you tend to sit on in Central Asia and yeah, I just, I had a moment in this cafe thinking this could be quite an interesting spot for a book to use the desert as the heart, and then sort of travel on way beyond the sand borders of the Kyzylkum Desert. It’s not huge and it just sort of spans Kazakhstan a little bit and Uzbekistan quite a lot. So yeah, to use that as a focus and then to travel way beyond, obviously using food, again as a theme of recipes to express the journey.
Suzy Chase: In Red Sands, you talk about how you have to stop and you have to digest and I was wondering, there’s so much glorious, granular detail in this book did you have a pencil and paper out all the time? How did you record everything?
Caroline Eden: Yeah, I mean, I have, obviously I have a notebook and a pen with me I also use a voice recorder sometimes and I take a lot of photographs. I work as a journalist part of the time and so I’m always taking notes. I do think it’s actually best to take notes because a photograph can only do the visuals and a voice recording can only do the sounds whereas if you’re writing, you can kind of take everything down in one go. So yeah, I mean, some of it comes later from the photographs and some of it comes at the time. It’s lovely to sit in the train or sit in the cafe and just absorb what’s happening around you
Suzy Chase: I love that you wrote in the book “On these long journeys, the tempo of food and meal times becomes a mental rudder.”
Caroline Eden: Yeah, I think it does. I mean, these were big journeys, six months in 2019 in Central Asia moving around. So sometimes when I go to Central Asia, I’ve just been in earlier in 2020, I spent a few months just in Bishkek, in the Capital of Kyrgyzstan, but this was two long trips in the spring and autumn of six months moving around and it’s exhausting. I’m not that young. I mean, I’m not that young anymore the beds are quite rough and the roads are really rough and sometimes you go a bit hungry and thirsty if you’re crossing a mountain range or a desert, and it’s dusty, it’s quite rough and ready sometimes. In Dushanbe, for example, the capital of Tajikistan, when you go and try to arrange a car and a driver, if the economy is not so good, which is often the case, you get mobbed by drivers wanting your business, pulling you and tussling with you and shouting at you. I’m always very honest about how I report back from central Asia and it is wonderful, but it’s also, it can be really hard work. It’s never really scary, but it can be quite unnerving sometimes. So for me, food is good to think with, but it’s also essential because it’s a rest. So it helps you catch the feel of a place, but also, you know, you need to sometimes just sit down at a bar for a few hours and have a couple of beers and digest what’s just happened on this journey you’ve been on for the last two days. I think that’s really important, whatever age you are.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of digesting, you were in Bishkek in October smack in the middle of the violence and you had a front row seat from your balcony. Can you talk a little bit about Bishkek before the revolution and then after the revolution?
Caroline Eden: Yeah. Okay. So this isn’t in the book. This year I was in Bishkek for a while with a Russian tutor my Russian is still not anywhere near where it should be and I’ve got a great Russian teacher in Bishkek and I was there doing some reporting as well and meeting up with some colleagues and stuff. There were elections scheduled. No one really predicted very much was going to happen. My husband’s a news journalist, and I know some of the other news journalists in the region and no one was really talking this up to be a thing. And I was there in an apartment by myself on one of the main squares. Yeah it hugely kicked off. I mean, Bishkek has had two previous uprising/revolutions in the last 15 years, this is the third one and the previous two had been extremely violent with a lot of loss of life. And I had a whole night glued to the balcony apart from when the gunfire was really close and I thought the windows might get blown in watching the sky light up with explosions, listening to water cannons, grenades, constant firing. I didn’t know what they were firing the police. I was terrified it was live rounds turns out it was not rubber bullets, but sort of pellets, which were very dangerous and a complete night of carnage. So…
Suzy Chase: We all followed along on your Instagram with you.
Caroline Eden: Yeah it took about 10 days for it to calm down and the elections now actually about to take place so we’ll see what happens, but all the main parliamentary buildings were stormed, the president fled, I mean, it was complete chaos. It was really interesting. I did some news reporting for the BBC and stuff, but it was quite scary at times I was terrified people might just try and break into the apartment block to get away from whoever they were running from. I mean, these are good, solid Soviet built apartments you would have a job to do, you know, it was by myself in a city where I sort of vaguely knew two people. It was quite scary. Yeah.
Suzy Chase: Oh man. So the landscape is incredible, but what you’re really interested in are the man-made buildings. Talk a bit about how you named each essay.
Caroline Eden: I mean every book needs a structure. I was saying this to somebody the other day and it’s kind of, that sounds a bit cynical, but you’ve got to shape it somehow. So I was thinking, what do I think of when I think of Central Asia obviously I think of food and I think of the landscape, but actually more any of that, I do think of the man-made buildings because that’s where the stories are I mean, obviously if you’re a nature writer, you can talk about nature forever and how inspiring and beautiful and interesting it is but for me, I’m more interested in people and the human landscape, human stories. So for the book I wanted to structure it around a building. So Pavlodar for example, is called Konditorei. It was a cake shop I featured this fantastic cake shop and then the essay from that is Skyscraper and that’s now Sultan in the North, which has the new capital because it’s extremely modern and everybody always talks about the architecture there and the fantastic buildings. And then we go on to Karlag, which was the Kazakh sort of name for, for gulag like it was their particular gulag chain that Stalin set up. So that is a kind of like theme through the book, these little headings so you have a heading like Karlag and I have a subtitle Remembering Stalin’s victims and then I actually have a date line a bit like you get in a newspaper. So it would be Karlag Remembering Stalin’s victims, and then Akmal North Kazakhstan and the reason I did that was because I’m aware that I’m taking people to places which are quite unfamiliar still and I wanted that dateline there just to immediately place people, because there’s only so much detail we could put on the map at the front of the book, the map is more primitive than I would have liked, but it just gets very, very tight, very messy if you start putting all these little place names in, and you can’t really work out where one country starts, neither one ends because the essays can kind of stand alone as well you don’t have to read the book. I mean, ideally read the book from start to finish, but you could read a single essay and know where you are in the world and what basically the theme is going to be.
Suzy Chase: You’ve been writing about Central Asia for over a decade now, how has the cuisine changed?
Caroline Eden: It’s changed and it’s not changed. So what I loved in Bishkek this time last year in 2020, when I was there for a few months, it was quite how brilliant it is that you can get a bowl of ramen then now and very good sushi. This was not possible five years ago. I dare to say, actually the sushi restaurant has been there six years, but yeah, like sort of five, six, 10 years ago, it would be shashlik and plov and samsa and quite limited menus in the cafes and restaurants and now most of the big cities in Central Asia have good coffee shops so you can get a decent latte and this all sounds very kind of like, you know, winsome and unnecessary, but again, if you’ve been traveling for a really long time as an outsider, you might fancy some sushi and there’s nothing wrong with that. And of course, local people want this food of course, many people travel outside of Central Asia now more and more and many people go to Russia and Turkey and so the more the region opens up and the more young people, you know, travel and come back with ideas and stuff, it’s sort of really changing but still in people’s homes, especially outside the big cities, it’s quite traditional.
Suzy Chase: I was surprised to discover your favorite central Asian dish is laghman and not plov.
Caroline Eden: It is my favorite dish and I loads of it in Bishkek last year. It’s just really delicious. I love noodles and laghman is basically a noodle dish and it’s Uyghur the Turkic people living in Xinjiang in China. So it is a Central Asian dish because those people are Central Asian ethnically, and it’s a sort of mild stewed meat and vegetables. Normally the noodles are hand pulled, it gives it a sort of thickness and a slightly sort of rustic feel. And it’s just really delicious. It’s pretty straightforward. Yeah a mild stew of meat and vegetables on top of the noodles often with celery, which I particularly like, and often with red bell peppers, some chives on the top maybe some sesame seeds, quite filling, but basically it’s lamb and there’s noodles and vegetables. It’s really, really nice.
Suzy Chase: Can you describe plov?
Caroline Eden: I can. I mean I’ve talked about plov so much over the years and it’s wonderful. The different variations that you have of it, unlike laghman it is quite varied. So plov, there are variations of plov. Sometimes you’ll have it with quails eggs on the top of this rice dish, which is cooked in layers. Sometimes you might have it with barberries or quince if it’s the season, but always plov is cooked with carrots and onions and rice cooked in layers with a lot of oil. And what makes a good plov normally is the cook who makes it, first of all, it’s a slow dish. It’s very calorific and then perhaps the setting where you’re eating it. And more recently I discovered actually very good garlic makes a difference. So in Osh in Kyrgyzstan, which is a city, which is half Kyrgys is half Uzbek. There’s a man called Imenjon, who I always stay with and his plob is my favorite plov and the reason I love Imenjon’s plov is because he puts then to his plov whole peeled garlic cloves, which are scattered through the rice and then as you eat the plov you mash it through with the back of your fork and then along with the strong cumin seeds, which are very well toasted and very fresh carrots and onion and plump raisins with this rice, you eat this very filling, slightly oily, delicious really Moorish plov. And the other beautiful thing about Imenjon’s plov is the type of the rice, which is quite important for plov. If I’m making a plov here at home in the UK, I just use basmati rice there is no point trying to mess about the short grain rice, because it’s too sticky and it grains don’t separate properly, and it becomes a bit of a mess but if I’m cooking a plov in Central Asia or from eating somebody else’s plov, they’re probably going to use something like uzgen rice, which is the rice that Imenjon uses and it’s short and fat and reddish and very flavorsome. So it’s the quality like so many things, the quality of the local ingredients and Imenjon is particularly good because he cooked it for two decades at the base camp of Peak Lenin for the Soviet mountaineers so he’s extremely experienced and a wonderful person and a wonderful cook. I.
Suzy Chase: In part two in Autumn you move on to The Steppe Desert and mountain cradle until you end up in Tajikistan in the Fergana Valley shared by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan can you describe the Autumn markets?
Caroline Eden: Well, they’re an absolute heaven to me. So I think where you’re describing is Khujand. Khujand is Northern Tajikistan, and it’s the Tajik section of the Fergana Valley and has got a very, very good market and there you can buy things like fabulous lemons, which are like your meyer lemons that you can buy in America, which are new to me because we cannot get them here in the UK and they’ve got very thin skin and they’re very, very juice heavy, and they’ve got a slight Tangerine sort of color and taste, and they’re absolutely delicious. And the markets are just terrific. The melons that they have, there will probably be winter melons in the autumn, which would be early then, but then I sort of hung up on rafters in the market through the winter and they sort of mass extra sucrose they get sweeter and sweeter and they’re hanging inside the markets, which is visually amazing and all along the way, as you’re driving into Khujand along the outskirts are cabbage patches and apricot trees and fields of wheat and rice, and sort of gushing channels of the Syr Darya River, which comes through Khujand and it’s just very, very fertile the Fergana Valley, lots of tributaries of water feeding this region, very, very rich, a lot of cotton fields as well but wonderful Khujand it’s very Uzbek as a city when the Soviet Union was crazy, there were lots of strange borders and pockets of different groups of people ended up outside of the sort of traditional ethnic groups. So Khujand while it’s in Tajikistan is quite Uzbek, but yeah, really, really interesting. I enjoyed it again very much and not a place that gets any tourism really. People go there a bit because Alexander The Great ended his advance within this region there and there’s a very good regional museum, which explains the military leaders life and the time that he was there and the journey there quite pretentiously because that was where he ended so I stand on the bank of the Syr Darya and say, I’ve now got enough because this is where Alexander The Great had also had enough and so we end in Khujand.
Suzy Chase: You know, after reading about the Uzbek melons in your book, I realized I probably have never had a good melon.
Caroline Eden: Well you can have them in California because a couple of Uzbek varieties are now growing in California, which is amazing to me because we certainly cannot get them here.
Suzy Chase: But you’re getting them there, right? Aren’t the UzbekI melons coming to Britain?
Caroline Eden: I’ve heard that they are but I haven’t seen them with my own eyes yet. There’s a rumor circulating, which I’m very keen on that we might be getting them. It would probably become even more difficult now we’ve left the European Union. Germany, which has a relatively big Russian population and Russians appreciate those melons. I’ve heard you can get them in markets in Berlin. You can get them in Istanbul, but yeah, I mean really want to eat them in, in Uzbekistan because they are unlike any other type of melon. There’s a huge number of over a hundred different varieties but extremely sweet, extremely sweet and the fruit generally is just fabulous it’s a reason alone to go really is.
Suzy Chase: The recipes in Red Sands are like maps in the book. What sort of criteria did you use to choose the recipes?
Caroline Eden: That’s a good question. So I tend to choose recipes or dishes where they have a story attached to them that will reveal to us something new. So while I couldn’t do a book on Central Asia with a food focus without including plav and laghman, I would rather include something else that would tell us something new about the region. So a couple of my recipes in the book are kind of fantastical. So there’s a recipe for Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, because she spent time in Tashkent and that allows me to then talk about sort of Tashkent being a city of bread and a sort of refuge for people during difficult periods of Russian history and another recipe, for example for zapekanka, sort of a breakfast cake by a woman called Anna who’s whose guest house that I stayed at and a Caspian anchor cocktail, that’s sort of inspired by sea buckthorn which is a common ingredient so they should tell a story in order to be included and reveal to us something new because while Central Asia is still relatively under explored for its culinary delights, I wouldn’t say it wasn’t completely fresh territory at all. There are quite a lot of books in Russian on Central Asian food and all the books have been written. So yeah, I think you have to push the boundaries a bit and do something different otherwise you’re just repeating.
Suzy Chase: So what I love about your writing is you take us along your adventures here and there, and you sprinkle in some old stories or writings that pertain to your experience. Um, like in Pavlodar for example, you wrote the British copper miner John Wardell had to cross the river and the voyage took him seven hours. Like for me as the reader that makes me want to delve deeper into what you’re writing about.
Caroline Eden: Great. Well that certainly that idea. Um, yeah, John Wardell was an incredible character. He travels to the region, I think, was it in 1916 roundabout? And he went to mine copper for the czar he was an Englishman and yeah, he traveled… makes my journey look very easy. He was very, very interested in what he found there and wrote very beautifully about the seasons and the natural world. I like to bring in one or two travelers from the past to try and show what travel was like then and what it’s like now and how some of it’s actually stayed the same. So yeah John Wardell, I think he crossed with all of his belongings in the early summer, that river, the Irtysh and why, and I’m the ice floes are just attaching and it just sort of shows you a different scene. Um, I think when he crosses it, he’s focused on it being 10 miles wide or something like that, which it was nowhere near that way when we were there. Yeah. So the river changes and yeah, John Wardell is very interesting. He’s book is beautiful. I recommend it.
Suzy Chase: I have to read that, you know, from Black Sea, I read Sitwell’s Roumanian Journey because you brought it up in Black Sea.
Caroline Eden: I remember you said you read that, which is fantastic. It’s gotten forgotten. It’s a real shame. So many books are published every year and some of these old travel books just sort of fall off the map and nice to bring them back.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called Last Night’s Dinner where I ask you what you had last night for dinner.
Caroline Eden: Oh goodness. So that’s quite easy for me actually, because I’ve been cooking a lot, like everybody during lockdown from my cookbooks, my cookbook collection, which is actually very modest from Roopa Gulati’s India: The World Vegetarian I absolutely love it and I cooked last night, her Rajasthani Onions, which are sort of onions cooked in cream, cause I happened to have some cream leftover in the fridge and they were really, really, really nice and I made that with a kedgeree with some mackerel cause I had a mackerel leftover in the fridge as well. So I had those two things together one was a website recipe and one was Roopa’s, delicious creamy onions. Yeah. I’m a big, big fan of her cooking. I made her chapati’s as well and I’m going to make her bhel puri later on this week. So yeah, I’m addicted to her book it’s her new one.
Suzy Chase: So where can we find you on the web and social media?
Caroline Eden: I’m on Twitter and Instagram. I’m probably on Twitter a bit more, but the same handle for both @EdenTravels.
Suzy Chase: All your books are so special. I cannot thank you enough, Caroline, for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Caroline Eden: Suzy it’s been a pleasure thank you for having me back.
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