The undiscovered food of central Asia

The co-author of a cookbook inspired by the food of Central Asia, Eleanor Ford is a keen traveller and having two kids hasn’t stopped her (her son had visited 10 countries before he turned one). Here, she talks food, family and travel…

Eleanor Ford, along with Caroline Eden, is author of Samarkand, a cookbook that celebrates the much-overlooked food of Central Asia. Together they travelled the Caucusus, eating in homes and canteens to uncover the cuisine of the ancient Silk Road. Ford tells us the story of the book and how she juggles travel with family life.

How did the book come to be?
Caroline [Eden] and I have been great friends since university. She’s spent a lot of time in Central Asia and completely undeservedly the region has a bad reputation for food. I’ve been a food writer for quite a long time; I transcribed TV chef’s recipes for the home cook and I was a restaurant reviewer. She said that we have to let people know about this amazing part of the world and the food that has been so maligned, and it went from there.

What is Central Asian food like?
This is where east meets west, so the cuisine is influenced from its surrounding regions. You’ve got flavours that are Chinese, for example dumplings called manti, which are very like Chinese dumplings, with ginger and soy sauce and vinegar. You’ve got dill from the north, which is used a huge amount, that’s the Soviet influence, and people drink tea and vodka. You always have pots of tea and of vodka on the table.

Then there’s the spices – this is the heart of the Silk Road after all – and Persia is on the border, so you’ve got lots of nuts and fruits. There’s a lot of crossover in the food, with so many different ingredients and so many different peoples. It’s a melting pot of cultures.

Food of Central Asia - spice tea -

Why does it have such a bad reputation?
Guide books talk about the beautiful architecture, and amazing handicrafts, and then suddenly it becomes rather quiet about the food. I was nervous, but I was blown away. There isn’t really a restaurant culture, so as a tourist you can end up eating in some quite ropey tourist restaurants. But if you get invited into someone’s home – and they’re such hospitable people, so it’s easy to do that – then you have the best food, with such fresh market produce and amazing hospitality. I was so delighted with the food I found there.

How did you track down and learn all the different recipes?
The people were so hospitable, that I would go along to kitchens and show an interest and they would show me what they were doing, and invite me into their homes or take me to other places. It’s an amazing place. The guest is said to be the first person in the home, so people are very generous. I really enjoyed being able to unpick all the different histories and influences in the different dishes.



What’s your favourite recipe in the book?
It’s called ruins of a Russian count’s castle. It’s a Russian influenced cake that’s incredibly popular in Uzbekistan. In the Russian quarter you see these cakes in all the chill cabinets and people buy them for celebrations. As you can guess from the name, it looks like it’s tumbling down. It has meringue on the top, a prune cake base, with cream and meringue and chocolate. They can be made with profiteroles, or with cake that’s chopped up and turned into rubble itself. But lots of cream. Always lots and lots of cream.

When you started the project you didn’t have any children and now you have two – how have you managed it?
I’m always one to take on more than I can handle. I have three worlds – food writing, my tutoring business in Hong Kong, and an international school for students, and my children have to fit in as well. My husband and I have always been big travellers, so our children fit into that. My son had been to ten countries before he’d turned one, because I wasn’t going to stop doing the things that I love. It’s all a balancing act. I’m never peaceful, but I’m always happy with my busy world and I think I’m quite lucky.

Food of Central Asia -

How was travelling around Central Asia with a toddler?
My son is a great traveller – he kind of has to be. So he came all round Uzbekistan with me when he was one and a half. I was a bit nervous about whether he’d like the food or not so I took a suitcase full of those toddler organic ready meal things. I took him on the first day to a plov restaurant. He dug into the plov and wouldn’t touch the pots of food I brought for the rest of the trip. He became a huge Central Asian food enthusiast.

Do you have any tips for travelling with small children?
I have no tips! Take a deep breath and try to be calm. I’m always nervous getting onto a flight. You feel like everyone is giving you evil eyes as you settle on. Normally, luckily, I get compliments on the way out about how well my son has done.

It’s not relaxing, that’s for sure. But it’s a great fun thing to do. My son, even though he’s only two and a half, still talks about trips we’ve done. There’s something about going away that galvanises your memories, the photographs you take and doing different things. He talks about things we did last year that perhaps he wouldn’t if it had just been the ordinary routine.



Why is travel so important to you?
Travel has been such a huge part of our lives and of my life growing up. I spent a lot of my early years in India particularly, which was such a privilege for me and I think it probably got my interest going in world cooking early on. I want my children to have the same. There’s so much of the world to see and I want to see as much as possible, and the best way to do that is to start early.

Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus by Eleanor Ford and Caroline Eden is published by Kyle Books at £25

Are you familiar with the food of Central Asia? Let us know in the comment section below…