Travel long read: Red Sands – a journey through Central Asia from Hinterland to Heartland with food at its heart

A lunch in the Kyzylkum Desert, which straddles Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, sparked the idea for Caroline Eden’s book, Red Sands – Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia from Hinterland to Heartland. With the desert at their heart and food as a recipe for revelation, her stories and journeys drawn from a six-month trip to Central Asia in 2019 preserve a flavour of the region before further change sees more disappear for good via bulldozers, the march of globalisation and increased tourism and also reveal a unique and different portrait. Photography by Theodore Kaye and Ola O. Smit

Red Sands, by Caroline Eden, is published by Quadrille, on 12 November, £26 hardback
Red Sands, by Caroline Eden, is published by Quadrille, on 12 November, £26 hardback

IN the shattered rear-view mirror, the land was pink from the rising sun. The fractured looking glass rendered the desert view, mainly sand dunes, scrub and small hills, broken and repetitive. On the road, between the cities of Bukhara and Khiva – some stretches good, others badly potholed – there was a sense of slowly evaporating, of being dwarfed by the Kyzylkum (‘red sand’) Desert. Life’s usual urban markers – glass, advertising, people and concrete – had vanished. Every mile crossed felt acute because, even in the safety of a car, deserts trigger intensities: uneasy mirages of lost directions and fears of supplies running short. But, despite imagined terrors, deserts also excite awe…

Walking past the lounging men, through thick grey shashlik [meat] smoke corkscrewing up from the grill, I went into the kitchen to order what I could smell (for there wouldn’t be anything else). Inside the walls of the clay tandoor were roundels of non bread, each one slowly baking and expanding until golden on top, chewy in the middle and crispy underneath. What smell in the world is more innocent, more primevally reassuring, than that of bread? No smell. Nothing is more soothing than the scent of bread.

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The kitchen was as ordered and sand-whipped as it was clean. A red Russian weighing scale stood on a steel table and next to it were empty rice sacks used as makeshift soufreh, traditional squares of clean material used to prepare food upon. Alongside, a blue and white teapot, a handle-less teacup called a piala, and a wooden chekich bread stamp. Dense heat hung over it all and a small team worked in silent rhythm: a woman dressed in a red and gold tunic ferried plates and cutlery to the men outside; a chef in a paisley bandana pushed and pulled non bread out of the tandoor and outside, by the tapchan [raised platform], a man fanned the cubes of lamb with one hand while turning the skewers with the other. Glossy caramel chunks of fat, threaded between the meat, glowed as the signature notes of Central Asian cooking – meat and bread – puffed and travelled on the wind out to the desert. Behind the kitchen lay the skeleton of a rusting Russian truck, baked by the sun. Stripped of any value, it had no roof, no windows and no wheels. Ruinously pretty, it looked like a piece of art that had been carefully wedged in the sand by a band of guerrilla artists.

In the capital, Astana, now renamed Nur-Sultan in honour of the former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

I joined the men outside. The skin around their eyes was heavily lined, as if carved from redwood, and their demeanour was contagiously languid, suited to the heat. With their settled-in postures and sun-faded clothes it looked as though they’d been here an age already, and were happy to be here another. In a busy world, the quiet desert has its pleasures. First from the kitchen came green tea, steaming in a stout teapot decorated with Persian-style birds. Then bread, still warm and good to chew, a plate of raw onion rings, a canister of salt, and lastly the juicy, fatty shashlik [meat cubes] threaded tightly onto the rough-hewn metal skewers. We ate, and we ate together, anchored on the desert tapchan, our hunger collectively divided and divided again. The time – an hour or so – passed cordially, carefree. It was early autumn but the heat still oozed. Shashlik smoke quivered in the middle distance, mixing and melding with the desert’s glow, vibrating up from the sand, creating mirage-like waves.

I split open a watermelon with a penknife, and placed dripping crescents of it onto a spare plate. Red water bled out from sugary wet flesh, quickly reducing and fading into a dry pale-pink stain. We ate it, then I wiped my hands on my jeans, stood up, and left. Setting is all, of course, and desert romance has a tendency to spill into memories like sand into boots, but that roadside meal in the Kyzylkum Desert – shashlik, bread, raw onion rings, salt and melon – eaten five or so years ago, had authority. Requiring very few tools, it was good and it created no waste. And, it was at that desert café that I considered whether I’d ever eaten anything, anywhere, so simple yet so harmoniously in tune with its extreme environment. So entirely suited to its surroundings. And, I concluded that I had not.

AS with her previous book, Black Sea, the Edinburgh-based travel and food writer Caroline Eden includes recipes, or “edible snapshots”, most based on meals eaten in situ in restaurants, on trains, in homes and in kitchens along the way through four of Central Asia’s five republics, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

For Eden, mealtimes provide “an escape and a break, a relief and stability on the road, the assurance of a drink, a meal, and a rest at the table.”

Near Sherkala, Mangystau Province, Kazakhstan

“Sitting at the dastarkhan (literally ‘tablecloth’), the covered table set low to the ground, as is common throughout Central Asia, vast mealtimes proceed as they have done for centuries. Freshly baked non bread [flatbread] will be torn and handed around, a plate of warm flaky samsa [flaky pastry with minced lamb filling] will be set down, a platter of plov [rice and meat] placed in the centre, endless cups of tea will be ferried back and forth, all alongside salads and many bowls of seasonal fruit. In the spring, cherries and strawberries, and in the autumn, melon – always melon – for they are the best in the world."

For Red Sands Eden began her journey “on the springtime shores of the Caspian Sea, way out west, in the largest country in the region, oil-rich Kazakhstan. Then it’s on through steppe, desert and mountain cradle, via burgeoning and unsung cities, until we end in Tajikistan, in autumn, in the knot of the Fergana Valley, shared by three countries: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This valley has suffered bloody ethnic violence in recent history, but it is the heartland of Central Asia, home to a multitude of ethnicities and wonderful produce, traditions and hospitality. Autumn, when the markets are abundant, is the time to be there.”

Now back home from her travels, Eden says, “If a journey in the end returns us home we carry pieces of places visited with us. Memories are not all we are left with because when we travel, we ourselves return changed. We are indebted and connected to other places and other people. Marcel Proust knew this when he wrote: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ Meetings on the road, chanced and determined, often change the way we see things.’

FACTFILE

Ayni in North Tajikstan

Red Sands, by Caroline Eden, is published by Quadrille, on 12 November, £26 hardback

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The Rasht Valley, Central Tajikistan
Obigarm in the Gissar Mountains, West Tajikistan