Red Sands by Caroline Eden

4.5 out of 5 stars

The title of the book takes its name from the vast Kyzylkum desert that is spread between the rivers of Amu Darya and Syr Darya. It crosses the boundaries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The five states that make up the Central Asian region used to be swallowed up by the red opaqueness that was the USSR and now are separated into Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Whilst there are formal borders between them, there are regions that still flow across these man-made lines that follow customs, food and culture. It was whilst stopping at a café for a memorable lunch of shashlik, bread, onion and melon between the cities of Burkara and Khiva that the idea for this book formed.

Her journey starts in the spring on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the town of Aktau. It feels slightly lawless being located a fair way from the capital. She didn’t want to eat where the monied people head too rather she wanted to discover for herself the more homely food available in the town. The food was superb and the bill was small; it was a good start to her culinary travels in the region. She heads out to the dark oily hear of Kazakhstan passing nodding donkeys that bring wealth to the country and onto an underground mosque that people stop in on a pilgrimage to Beket-Ata. She leaves her donation of food and they get back on the road to continue their journey. She finds the kitchen and questions the chefs about what is bubbling in the cauldrons.

This sets the tone of the books. She moves from place to place, drinking tea whilst meeting the locals. She shelters from the rain in and shares food in a home dripping with heirlooms, watching café owners spraying water over courtyards in the vain hope of suppressing the relentless dust. The architecture is as bleak as the desert at times, but she is really here for the food. She is fortunate to be asked to a wedding, heads to what sounds like an amazing forest in search of walnuts, she swims in a lake alongside a military sanatorium and admires the plov platters in the workshop that they are made.

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.

This is a wonderful book, it is a sumptuous and heady mix of food, travel and reportage and it just works perfectly all together. She is a sensitive and curious traveller, seeking to tease out the stories that normal people have to tell her about the lives that they lead. Not only can you read about the places, but the recipes that are scattered liberally throughout mean that you can bring some of those flavours and smells into your home. Like Black Sands, the cover on this is just gorgeous and the photos taken in the locations are stunning too. Another fantastic book from Eden.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    Oh this looks excellent, well and sensitively done and about an area that isn’t often covered.

    • Paul

      it is such a lavishly produced book with a good narrative and recipes too!

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