Red Sands by Caroline Eden

Red Sands by Caroline Eden

What’s the USP? Ever wondered what the food, people and places of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are really like? Then here’s your chance to find out.

Who is the author? Caroline Eden is a writer and journalist specialising in the former Soviet Union. Her first book Samarkand – recipes and stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus appeared in 2016 and was named Guardian book of the year and won Guild of Food Writers ‘Food and Travel’ award in 2017. He second book Black Sea was awarded the Art of Eating Prize, the John Avery Award at the Andre Simon Awards, Best Travel and Food Book of the Year at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards and Best Food Book at the Guild of Food Writers Awards 2019.

Is it good bedtime reading? It’s probably best to think of Red Sands as a travelogue through Central Asia with recipes rather than a cookbook per se (on her website, Eden describes herself as ‘a writer about places’ rather than a food writer) so you will spend at least as much time with the book learning about Nur-Sultan, the ‘purse proud and machine made’ capital of Kazakhstan as you will cooking dishes like mushroom khinkali (dumplings), something Eden ate at Café Tselinnikov in the city.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Although you may be new to Central Asian cuisine (I certainly was), the ingredients will be surprisingly familiar. Meatballs are flavoured with paprika and cumin in a soup from Karaganda made with lavash and chickpeas; Laghman, a noodle dish served throughout the region, features lamb, Chinese cabbage, peppers and cumin, and even canned peaches turn up in a sour cream cake from Northern Kazakhstan. You should even be able to find Tvorog, a soft curd cheese similar to quark in your local superstore (but if not head to a Polish shop if you have one nearby) which you’ll need to make a simple and light Zapekanka cake for breakfast.

What’s the faff factor? Basically non-existent. This is simple, homely food with mostly short ingredient lists and easy methods. There are a few dumpling recipes, including steamed pumpkin khunon, which by their nature are a little more complex as you’ll need to make both dough and filling and then shape and fill the dumplings  before cooking, but apart from that many of the recipes would be ideal for beginner cooks.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? The ingredient list for non puju, (a sort of yeasted flat bread topped with beef stew flavoured with Chinese five spice, soy and chilli)  calls for 1/2 handful of coriander which is the epitome of vagueness, but the recipes are so straightforward that the odd handful (or half) is neither here nor there.

Killer recipes: Sultan kurgan tofu; autumnal soup with rice, barley and lamb; Kulich – Russian Easter bread; sweet bread and mung bean pilaf; blushing quince jam; Grand Asia Express samsa (chicken, potato and cumin puff pastry turnovers); pickled cauliflower.

How often will I cook from the book? With accessible and delicious recipes for soups, stews, breads, snacks, pickles, preserves, desserts and breakfasts, Red Sands should prove a useful resource that you’ll return to often.

What will I love? Eden has gone to the ends of the earth (well, sort of) to research the book and writes about her subject with great authority and style. The book is packed with telling details that enliven the prose and put the reader right in the action. For example, in a market in Tashkent, northeast Uzbekistan, Eden watches as ‘one sold out vendor packed his weighing scale back up and, reversing out of the block, licked the fingers of his right hand and counted the banknotes straight on to his ballooned belly.’ Also, what about that stunning cover?

Should I buy it?  Caroline Eden is an outstanding writer and if Red Sands doesn’t win as many if not more awards than Black Sea I’ll be amazed.  An essential purchase for anyone interested in world cuisine and travel. 

Cuisine: Central Asian
Suitable for: Beginners/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Buy this book
Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland
£26, Quadrille Publishing Ltd