The city of Samarkand is on the storied Silk Road, but off the beaten path for many tourists. Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford make the case for the ancient Uzbek city's food and culture in their new book, Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & The Caucasus. They spoke with Lynne Rossetto Kasper about it.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Caroline, where is Samarkand? Because this is a part of the world we're not familiar with.
Caroline Eden: Samarkand is a city in Uzbekistan. It's not the capital city. The capital city is Tashkent. And it sits between Iran and China. It is north of Afghanistan, and it is south of Kazakhstan.
LRK: Okay. So, we're talking mountains and desert, right?
CE: That's right.
LRK: And this was the crossroad of the Silk Roads. So, what took you there?
CE: I first went to Samarkand in 2009, really inspired by the Mughal architecture of northern India. So, the founder of the Mughal Empire was Babur, and Babur was born in modern day Uzbekistan. So, having fallen in love with this fantastic Mughal architecture, I thought, I have to go to Uzbekistan and go back to the roots, and that was really what took me there.
LRK: What were your first impressions?
CE: My first impressions were just, "Wow!" I had been traveling in Tajikistan in quite rough mountain territory for a few weeks, and I crossed the border and drove into Samarkand, and all of a sudden, I was surrounded by shining turquoise tiles, sweeping high minarets, and beautiful sandstone. It was everything I'd hoped for and more. It was just like being transported back to the 14th century. It was sort of Arabian Nights come true.
LRK: You actually wrote that it "shook" you.
CE: It really did. You know when there's somewhere that you really want to go to? And then, you finally arrive there, and you think, “I really hope this doesn't disappoint me.” It was everything that I'd hoped it would be.
It wasn't very tourist-y, so I kind of had the place to myself, which was very special and obviously quite hard to find in the world. It was just very otherworldly.
I had a particularly stirring experience at the Shah-i-Zinda, which is a necropolis. I arrived there very early one morning, and I was the only one there, and I could hear the imams chanting. And I just sat and listened, and I just thought, this place is incredible! Why don't more people come here?
LRK: Eleanor, your first impressions?
Eleanor Ford: For me, it's always food that draws me on my travels and that excites me the most, and I think, for me, Samarkand is so incredible because, historically and still today, it's such a cultural crossroads. The melting pot of people and cultures have each brought their own influence to the food there, which made it so fascinating to me as a food writer, looking at the different dishes and unpacking the history and influences behind them.
LRK: Is there a sort of typical dish, or am I asking for the impossible?
EF: Well, the undisputed king of Uzbek cuisine's got to be plov. This goes by other names: pilaf, palov, pulao. But it's essentially a one-pan rice dish where rice is layered with vegetables and with meat, but it's so much more than that. It can have jeweled fruits added to it: herbs, prunes, raisins, chestnuts. It's said there are as many different kind of plovs as there are people who cook it, and when it's cooked, it's cooked en masse. It's cooked in these vast pans called kazans. Legend has it that Alexander the Great ordered his cooks to create a dish that could be used as a campaign meal for his soldiers. These vast dishes are still used today to cook for people at weddings or parties, and everyone joins together and shares in this huge, communal eating.
LRK: I imagine stoves collapsing under the weight.
EF: Well, it's cooked outdoors, and in these huge kazan pans. The meat goes on the bottom, usually either lamb or beef, and it's slow-cooked until it's melting at the bottom of the pan. Above this will go vegetables. Typically, in Uzbekistan, you'll have a mixture of yellow and orange carrots, and onions, and just a little bit of spice: cumin, paprika, a tiny bit of red pepper. And then, above that comes the rice, which might be studded with whole heads of garlic or quinces, perhaps, in the autumn.
With the heat coming from below, the steam from the meat perfumes the rice above, so it's all scented with the flavors, and when it's served, it's served in reverse. So, you'll have the rice put at the bottom of the dish, then you'll have the vegetables and a little bit of the falling-apart meat on top.
LRK: Sounds wonderful.
EF: It will be brought to the table with wonderful herbed salads and bowls of cooling yogurt, and perhaps a scattering of quails eggs or pomegranate seeds. Depends on the chef's wont.
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