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The Best Eastern European Cookbooks

recommended by Caroline Eden

Cold Kitchen: A Year of Culinary Journeys by Caroline Eden

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Cold Kitchen: A Year of Culinary Journeys
by Caroline Eden

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Eastern European food is utterly under-appreciated, argues Caroline Eden—whose acclaimed, genre-bending books combine intrepid travel-writing with reportage and recipes. Here, she selects five of the best cookbooks showcasing Eastern European cuisine: from the perfect pierogi to beetroot borsch.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Cold Kitchen: A Year of Culinary Journeys by Caroline Eden

out now

Cold Kitchen: A Year of Culinary Journeys
by Caroline Eden

Read

Thank you for selecting these five Eastern European cookbooks. You’ve made a career writing about your travels to Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, Central Asia: reportage interspersed with locally inspired recipes. What do we gain from learning about other culinary cultures?

Food is often a way in. And food is something you can tell almost any story through. Sometimes there’s a snobbery around cookery books and food writing in the literary arena; people think it’s domestic, that it’s female, that it’s not very interesting. But when you start to dig into it, you realise you can talk about literally anything through food—you can talk about agriculture and soil and climate change, or just share a lunch with an interesting person.

My area of interest stretches between Eastern Europe and Central Asia and I’m especially interested in what has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. For example, in my book Red Sands—about Central Asia—I talked a lot about the collective farms, how livestock and all aspects of farming were collectivised. In Black Sea, I talked about fishing, and what’s under the sea—clay jars of fish preserved for thousands of years in shipwrecks… By zooming in on one area, food, you realise where the possibilities lie. You can do so much, go anywhere with it. Any direction that you like.

Most of the places I write about are—this is becoming an increasingly controversial term for obvious reasons—in the post-Soviet space. You can look at what is shared across neighbouring countries, what remains. In some countries, part of their nation-building has been through food. The Soviet Union was so good at was taking different cuisines and classing them as ‘Soviet’ food. But of course, it was never Soviet, it always belonged to those countries. What I’m saying is: it can be used for propaganda as well.

And I think there’s so much more to say about food in this region.

Right. And it makes a lot of sense that food might be one way of entering that domestic sphere—of getting to grips with how these countries really feel on the ground, in the home.

Yes. There’s a sort of split in food writing, in a way. There are some people who are very good at writing, literally, about the domestic sphere. There’s Olia Hercules, for example, who we will be talking about later. She’s very good at finding old Ukrainian recipe books, speaking to villagers, asking them to open up their cabinets of heirloom family recipes and then drilling down into the tales of certain villages, or a certain family. I think that is priceless and wonderful.

There’s also ‘the outsider eye’—where you go in as an outsider and try to observe, geographically, historically, where this all sits, within literature, art, film and your own interests.

I think there’s space for everybody. As long as you are engaging people with plenty of empathy and respect and reporting back in a sensitive way, I do think there is still value in the outsider looking at things, in somebody going in and then reporting back.

I can see that. We can become blinded to what surrounds us every day, and an outsider can bring fresh eyes. Shall we look at the first Eastern European cookbook you’d like to recommend, Moldova: People, Places, Food and Wine by Angela Brasoveanu? The photographs are by Roman Rybaleov. It has the most beautiful cover.

Yes, it’s absolutely gorgeous. I know the author’s daughter, Paula. She writes about Moldova and its culture, history and politics for various western publications. She generously mailed the book to me. I don’t know of any other book in English, currently on bookshelves, about Moldovan food. It’s a gap in the market, which is an unusual thing nowadays.

And it’s a thing of beauty. The author travelled around Moldova, with a photographer and they recorded local recipes and family recipes. There are a couple of key things about Moldovan cooking. Firstly, the similarities with Ukraine; they share the black soil, which Ukraine is famous for. This produces exceptionally tasty vegetables, and that’s reflected in this book. The other interesting thing is the multiculturalism within Moldova. There are Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Russian, Jewish, Christian influences. I often think that the best cuisines are those that take from other places.

This book was a bestseller in Moldova. Every bookshop I went into when I was there recently had it prominently on display, and they are very proud of it. And it resonated with me, because it has a lot of flavours that I recognise from Black Sea. It’s a very special book and I hope it sells well outside of Moldova. It should.

You said earlier that Moldova is a country that is relatively underrepresented in print compared to, say, Romania, which has had a bigger cultural crossover. Is that to do with flows of migration? For a while a lot of Romanians were emigrating to the UK to find work.

Quite possibly. I spent time in Bucharest after I was in Moldova and I did find it quite different. I’d been to Romania before, especially the Black Sea coast.

Something I wanted to talk about with you is the idea of peasantry and cookery. It’s a shame that in English there’s a derogatory element to the word ‘peasant.’ People use it in a negative way. But in all these cookbooks I’ve read over the years—on Polish cookery, Ukrainian cookery, and now Moldovan cookery—the peasant is absolutely revered. I asked Paula about this, and she said, well, it’s because the farmer sells to the market, but the peasant produces food for his own family. There’s a difference there. He’s not looking to make a profit, he is looking to feed and nurture their own family. That makes absolute sense to me. This book is a celebration of peasant food.

That makes sense. I suppose here in the UK we have very few subsistence farmers, people we could call ‘peasants’ even in non-derogatory terms, so what we revere instead are the kind of farmers who attend farmers’ markets—the small-scale farm-to-fork idea.

Yes. I’d love to drive around Moldova in the summer and see it in bloom. I imagine it’s spectacular. There are definitely similarities with Romania—polenta, sausages, very good Pinot Noir-type wines—but Moldova is so underrepresented.

We’ve already touched on the second Eastern European food writer you want to discuss, Olia Hercules and her cookbook Summer Kitchens. It’s all about regional cooking in Ukraine. Tell us more.

I love this book so much. I just got back from Ukraine so I’ve been cooking a lot of my own vegetarian-style borsch. But I think the reason that I have to include this book in our chosen list is because it’s absolutely Eastern European. I’m going to come back to the geographical question—of what is Eastern Europe—later when I talk about Poland.

This book is so important because it’s a documentation of Ukrainian villages, their summer kitchens, their dachas, pre-2022 and the full-scale invasion. Summer Kitchens was published in 2020. Hercules would, obviously, have been researching it her whole life, but she was researching it actively for several years before that. So it’s an absolutely crucial piece of documentation, a piece of memory work. And it’s gorgeous. I was looking through it yesterday and it brings tears to my eyes now, because these are villages where farmers have not been able to cultivate their fields properly because of the missiles and war debris. It’s terrible. Terrible.

These are tiny little villages. People didn’t have very much, before. They had their dacha, their little summer kitchen, their orchard. They were rich in terms of natural resources and fresh food, but not in what we might consider wealth—material goods. They were using the landscape to feed themselves, fishing for crayfish in the lakes and pickling vegetables. People talk about Italian food endlessly, but if you eat tomatoes from countries like Bulgaria and Ukraine they can be even better: so sun rich.

“In Polish cookery, Ukrainian cookery, Moldovan cookery—the peasant is absolutely revered”

So I had to include this book because it’s a vital and important record. It’s also absolutely beautiful to look through—the design and the photographs of all these families in their kitchens. Olia, as I was saying, is very good at gently coaxing out family recipes. No one can do it the way she does. So I think it’s so important to Ukraine as a document. You can also see all the influence of the borderlands: the Polish influences, the Carpathian highlands, the Romanian influence. I think that’s what ties it all together. Everything shapes everything else. During the Soviet Union, Stalin moved people around. The Tatars from Crimea, for example, were sent en masse to Central Asia, and have now come back. Olia writes about all of this.

In Ukraine, Odesa remains the city that I’ve loved the most. I remember being surprised by the huge vats of pickles in courtyards—massive jars of tomatoes, every vegetable you can imagine. I remember thinking, during visits, that these preserves were perhaps a reflection of a bunker-type mentality. Even before Covid lockdowns and now the full-scale invasion, these were people who were prepared for hardship. They have times of huge abundance, with that hugely rich soil, with the fruit and the vegetables and the fish and the meat. An amazing cuisine. But they also have a history of difficulties, having lived under the Soviet Union and having suffered pogroms and financial hardships.

Right. I suppose it’s another example of how a cuisine can be read as a type of cultural history. I’ve been following Olia Hercules online; her Instagram feed has offered insight into how one family has been impacted by the invasion.

Yes, it’s horrific. I remember an early video she put out, about her brother who was selling e-bikes in Kyiv before the war, a regular guy with two small children, who signed up and was off to the frontline. And her father, who is in the agricultural business, has been raising money for landmine clearance. It’s been devastating.

Let me keep us moving through your Eastern European cookery book recommendations. Let’s look at Zuza Zak’s Pierogi: Over 50 Recipes to Create Perfect Polish Dumplings.

I love pierogi.

I visit Warsaw quite a lot as it’s one of my favourite cities. I always go to the same café there, the Radio Café, not far from Central Station. It’s not a glamorous café. It’s quite rough and tumble. But it’s owned by a former Radio Free Europe journalist who is now in his eighties, and he is sometimes there. I always order the same thing: a pint of lager and a bowl of pierogi ruskie, which are quite basic dumplings filled with mashed potatoes and cheese and served with a buttery sauce and some chopped spring onions on top. I love it so much. So when I saw this book, I thought: amazing. They’re very regional, these dumplings. And the design is beautiful, it’s quite modern.

Whether Poland is Eastern European is very debatable. I actually asked Zuza what she thought, and she said she’d always felt it was Eastern European, because she’d grown up in the time of Communism. When most Westerners think of Eastern European foods, we are thinking of key Polish foods—fermented cabbage, dumplings, beetroot borsch (which Ukrainians claim as their national dish)—so I think we are on quite safe ground, in that the food is Eastern European even though the country is technically in central Europe.

I like this book because it helps you master the art of making your own pierogi at home, which is a great thing if you’ve fallen in love with it. She has these very detailed picture-essays, which are super helpful and practical. She also talks about how she had to defend Polish cuisine, how delicious and varied it is. In the north, it’s all about fish, and in the mountains it’s more about cheese and pasta.

She has a lovely anecdote about tipping—the word ‘to tip’ is literally ‘for beer,’ napiwek, so you don’t patronise someone. It’s not, like, I’m giving you cash, but a little thing for beer, a bit of spending money.

It’s just a cheerful, lovely book. I like to eat in Poland more than anywhere else in the world at the moment. Polish cuisine is so under-appreciated, and so good. The restaurants and wine there are amazing now.

Yes, I’ve heard that. I’ll have to go. Now, you’ve spoken a little bit about the Soviet influence on Eastern Europe already. Perhaps we could talk about CCCP Cookbook: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine by Olga and Pavel Syutkin next?

I love this book. It’s such a weird book. Partly I like it for the design. It’s from Fuel Publishing, and I have a lot of their books. It has a lovely exposed spine, all these original pictures in it from Soviet cookbooks, it’s very cool.

Of course, we shouldn’t glamorise the Soviet Union in any way—even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But we also can’t change the past. This is an incredibly interesting look, a deep dive into Soviet cuisine and culture. I spoke earlier about the propaganda of food. This book explains it all quite well—how the Soviet Union took dishes from other countries and claimed them for itself. That still exists today. Like, if you ask a Muscovite what kind of food they’re fond of, often you’ll get the reply ‘Georgian.’ There are excellent Georgian restaurants in Moscow. And, in a country like Latvia, which is currently anti-Russia—for good reason—and where cars with Russian number plates are now banned and where Russian signs have been removed and statues to Pushkin taken down, you’ll go to the main market, and there will be an Uzbek baker selling Uzbek non bread, and there are Uzbek restaurants in seaside resorts in Latvia, too, because the cuisine of the wider former Soviet Union is still very prevalent in all of these countries. People don’t want to move away from it, they like it.

So, in this book, they talk about this sharing. They also talk about the Tatars and the chebureki, that’s an interesting story. As I said earlier, the Tatars were deported en masse to Central Asia. Many were in Uzbekistan. People thought that chebureki—which are slightly greasy, flaky turnovers with mincemeat inside—were a Central Asian dish, but they are Tatar. There’s a popular stall in Riga, the Latvian capital, selling chebureki. So, yes, it’s full of true stories of different cuisines, their influences, and how food lives on in different guises. If you go to Georgia now, the restaurants all have signs in their windows saying, ‘if you don’t believe what Putin is doing is wrong, then don’t come in,’ or, ‘free champagne on the death of Putin.’ But at the same time, the food has a way of staying on, it’s a kind of memory.

When I was reading this book, it reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich, who once wrote that when the Soviet Union collapsed, no one was interested in reading Solzhenitsyn. What they did was rush out and buy ten types of sausages and twenty different biscuits. Food is always important to people—while literature is sometimes less so, especially at a time of economic freefall.

The photography is so terrible and so wonderful at the same time. It has a faded, 1970s style. You have to read it to put everything in context, to understand Soviet cuisine.

I think that might bring us, finally, to Boker Tov—which translates from Hebrew as ‘good morning’—which features recipes, stories and art. I’m intrigued.

I wondered about including this book because it’s not freely available, but you can buy it direct from the publisher online. I just love it.

I went to the Jewish Cultural Centre in Warsaw for their famous Sunday brunch, which is where I saw it on sale. I like it because, format-wise, it’s very interesting: it shows what a cookbook can do. It has lovely sketches in it—which sometimes take up two pages—and recipes, obviously, and also short essays. Reading it, is a bit like being a fly on the wall of the café. You never know exactly who you are listening to. It’s quite chaotic. And as these essays are attributed to people just by name, you don’t know who they are—is it the washing up guy? the cook? the delivery guy? the owner? You’re never sure. I like that playfulness.

But most importantly it shows how Jewish food culture is living on after the pogroms, after the Holocaust, after the Communist regime. It’s quite a hopeful book. All the recipes are vegetarian and kosher, which is very niche, but it includes traditional Jewish recipes like latkes and challah bread.

In Kraków, I visited Kazimierz, the Jewish historical area. Some have called it a sort of Jewish Disneyland, although I didn’t think it was that at all, I thought it was quite well done. But there are a lot of, like, klezmer bands playing in Jewish restaurants. This, to me, was a contrast. Boker Tov is a very low-key café in Warsaw, where you see living Jewish culture in a more natural environment. There are communal tables, and it gets very, very busy. They’re just trying to do something different, and I like it for that. Jewish culture does not have always to be nostalgic or tragic. This showed a very modern Jewish Poland.

What you said about it pushing the boundaries of what a cookbook ought to look like—I think, in a different sense, that can be said of your own work too. Perhaps you could talk about exploding the cookbook, or the travelogue, a little more.

Thank you. Well, briefly, in 2016 I published a book called Samarkand. That’s a very standard cookbook. It has essays in it, but mainly it’s recipes from Central Asia and a few from the South Caucasus. I wanted to produce that book because there was, again, this terrible misconception in the West about Central Asian food being dreadful. Or, I don’t know, if you don’t eat meat then you are going to starve there. That’s just not true.

There was very little tourist infrastructure when I first visited Samarkand in 2009. I was staying in people’s homes, the food was great, and there were massive markets selling things we can only dream of: amazing dried herbs, fresh herbs, nuts from Azerbaijan, Uzbek melons, which are the best in the world… I wanted to write that book to show people that there’s another side to it. But I also got frustrated writing that book, because I was told by my publisher at the time that they wanted a cookbook, but what I was pushing for was more of a travelogue with recipes.

Then I started to travel around the Black Sea, and I felt that region would suit a more narrative form of cookbook. I wanted to write a book where I would travel one straight journey from Odesa to Trabzon, and to write about the shared culinary cultures around the Black Sea, what those communities share and how they are different. That really lent itself to a narrative nonfiction-style book. Then I thought, well, I like cooking, so I would include recipes so people can taste the things that I’m writing about—taste the journey. And the photographer I worked with, Theodore Kaye, has got quite a journalistic style, which I also liked. So there are reportage-style essays in there, recipes, photos.

I have a very interesting readership, from what I can gather. There are people who will read anything about Central Asia, the Caucasus and their neighbouring countries —and I’m one of those people. There are armchair travelers. There are people who will buy any cookbook about what they think is an underrepresented place. I think my books capture all of those people. So, yes, they are broad books, but they are all on the region between Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and what connects them.

And then there’s Cold Kitchen, which has just been released.

That’s right. My work is in the territory of ‘food and the faraway.’ I wanted this book to bring it back home, to bring people into my basement kitchen in Edinburgh. The kitchen is like a portal to me. I’m an extremely restless person, but when I moved into my flat, and got this kitchen, I knew it had something that would hold me. I’d never owned anything before. I’d had terrible experiences renting in London, and finally I found somewhere where I felt settled to some degree for the first time. I connected with the kitchen instantly.

So, we’re in Edinburgh, but the book travels out to different places. I’ll be cooking a dish—for the Polish chapter for example, I’m preparing a cold soup—and we will travel to Kraków, where I talk about Jewish history and some of what I experienced there. Then we come back to Edinburgh—the book always comes back home. I see the kitchen as a kind of way to bring down the drawbridge between here and there.

I don’t think you necessarily have to be peripatetic and travel the whole time. It’s about paying attention. If you just hold a lime in your hand and actually think about where it’s come from, the journey it’s taken from the tree, from the village it came from—or, a peppercorn, maybe, from Cambodia—or mint that then might remind you of a cup of tea once poured in the Atlas Mountains. When I come home and unload the Georgian sunflower oil, or the dried herbs and spices, or the Ukrainian chocolates, that is both a way of sealing-off that trip but then also starting again, remembering and recording.

I like that the kitchen is underground; and how Edinburgh comes in through the one solitary window. I can look up and see people’s legs going by, hear all the voices. In August, when people are drunk and smoking spliffs during the festival—you have all that coming in. All the noises. The sound of wheelie suitcases on cobbles. So yes, I love this kitchen, and I worry I’m never going to be able to leave. Now that I’ve written this book, I’m even more attached to it. It’s a book about curiosity, about feeling at home in the world—and the importance of having a home to come home to, somewhere safe and stable.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

May 13, 2024

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Caroline Eden

Caroline Eden

Caroline Eden is a writer and book critic contributing to the Financial Times, The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. Her books include Samarkand, Black Sea and Red Sands, winner of the prestigious André Simon Award and a 'book of the year' for The New Yorker, and most recently Cold Kitchen.

Caroline Eden

Caroline Eden

Caroline Eden is a writer and book critic contributing to the Financial Times, The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. Her books include Samarkand, Black Sea and Red Sands, winner of the prestigious André Simon Award and a 'book of the year' for The New Yorker, and most recently Cold Kitchen.