The Piglet2017 / Quarterfinal Round, 2017

Samarkand vs. Taste of Persia


Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford

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Taste of Persia

Naomi Duguid

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Judged by: David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and one of the hosts of Slate's "Political Gabfest". He's the former Editor in Chief of Slate, and the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.

The Judgment

These two cookbooks—Samarkand and Taste of Persia—are twins, separated by a mountain range or two. In each book, an outsider ventures to Central Asia and attempts to describe the food traditions of a geographically disparate civilization. There are plenty of recipes, but also stories of human encounters—a bazaar here, a village there, and my favorite, a visit with the “Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan.” (I like to think of myself as a Mountain Jew of Vermont.) Both books have glorious photographs and cutesy regional maps. 

For Taste of Persia, author Naomi Duguid assigns herself the region influenced by Persian civilization: centrally Iran, but also parts of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kurdistan. Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford take the trading city of Samarkand as their capital, then caravan along the Silk Road to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and other Stans, as well as the Caucasus region, going as far east as Uighur China and as far west as Turkey. There’s little to separate the two books in style and approach. The travel narrative in Taste of Persia is more personal and emotional; Samarkand leans anthropological. 

So let’s head to the kitchen! Unsurprisingly, Samarkand and Taste of Persia overlap heavily in recipes and staples. Both have big sections on rice dishes and breads. Both make abundant use of dill, parsley, and cilantro. Pomegranate molasses, dried apricots and barberries, saffron, and nuts are everywhere. I’m an ignoramus about these two food cultures, but Duguid’s Taste of Persia feels more authentic to me: She’s a little less compromising about ingredients, describes techniques at length, and includes a rich glossary. 

I ended up cooking a full meal from each book: A soup, a vegetable, a starch, and a meat. Taste of Persia won the coin toss and went first. I adore dried apricots, so I debuted with a dried apricot and wheat berry soup, its murky orange jollied up with a ton of chopped fresh herbs sprinkled on top. Not a triumph: It was sour, sweet, and heavy—neither refreshing nor hearty. 


On to the main dinner: a koobideh kabob of grilled ground lamb and onion, a spinach borani with yogurt and onions, and a Kurdish black rice consisting of Arborio rice and walnuts cooked in pomegranate molasses. It was, my friends, a bummer. The koobideh was dry and sadly flavorless. The black rice, though it gets an A-plus for weirdness, shared the sour, heavy sweetness of the apricot soup. Most disappointing was the spinach, largely because there’s a misstep in the recipe: The dish is supposed to be a mixture of cooked spinach and yogurt, topped with fried onions. So says the introduction to the recipe! The photo shows wonderfully dark brown, obviously crunchy, onion strips! But ack, the recipe instructs, “fry the onion till translucent and touched with color, about five minutes.” I followed the recipe rather than the photo, and regretted it, creating a slimy mush. 

We reconvened one Sunday later for a meal from Samarkand. My kids were cynical and put-upon, burned by Persia. The Samarkand menu looked very similar on paper: Tajik Green Lentil and Rice Soup, Spicy Meatballs with Adjika (from Georgia), Melting Potatoes with Dill, and Radish, Cucumber and Herb Salad. 


Our faith was restored by the first spoonful. We demolished the lentil soup, which was topped with a delicious oily-herbed slurry. It was easy-peasy to make, and I am going to incorporate its rice-in-soup technique for other soups. Samarkand then ran up the score: The Georgian meatballs stayed moist thanks to milk and fatty ground pork cutting the ground beef. Most of us also liked their tomatoey, herby adjika sauce. The melting potatoes, mostly butter and dill, didn’t feel particularly Central or Asian to me, but the kid gobbled them up. And the radish salad’s crunch and bitterness swept away the lingering fat from the meatballs and potatoes. 

In 1383, Tamerlane left his capital Samarkand, marshalled his army, and set forth to conquer Persia. Over the next five years, his horde laid waste to the remains of the Persian empire. In Isfizar, Tamerlane cemented his enemies—alive—into the walls of the city. In Isfahan, he crushed a revolt by killing everyone, and built 28 towers out of the skulls of 100,000 victims. He reduced Herat to rubble, and sacked Zaranj. Tehran surrendered, and was spared death, but not heavy taxation. Then, triumphant, Tamerlane marched home to Samarkand. 

And so it is again. In the competition between two mighty cookbooks, Samarkand is a colossus, victorious. In the end, the proof in the pudding was the actual cooking. We open our family gates to Samarkand

And the winner is…



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Do you Agree?


witloof March 12, 2017
This review was a pleasure to read, and so was this review of this review. I sincerely hope that the editorial powers that be at Food52 will someday discover the awesomeness that is Jennifer Reese's writing and invite her to be a Piglet judge next year.
MarieGlobetrotter March 10, 2017
Samarkand has been on my mind ever since I read the first review on Food52/Piglet and I love that David Plotz brings some history and geography to his review.Samarkand absolutely does sound like a "colusses"
Brittany L. March 9, 2017
Could have done without the rough history reference at the end to declare the winner. "cooked from two books. TOWERS OF SKULLS. Here's my winner!"
Emily M. March 8, 2017
I listen to David Plotz every week on the Gabfest (and have gleaned from there that he likes to cook--they had a lengthy discussion once about the best way to cook dried beans!), so I was looking forward to this review, and it did not disappoint. Samarkand clearly won on the merits, and I appreciate that he cooked a full meal, rather than a random dish or two, to reach that conclusion. This isn't the first time I've heard that Duguid's recipes can be a bit hit or miss--but I love to read them anyway, and enjoyed Persia on that front. I'm about halfway through Samarkand and have liked it as well, but this review has convinced me to move it from my bedside table to the kitchen!
Lucinda March 8, 2017
I have had both books for about 4 weeks. I dip in and out of Persia and think it beautiful, interesting and appealing. I love the glossary and bibliography. I also have four of Naomi's previous books and have cooked from all of them with success.
However I have already cooked an entire meal from Samarkand - it was delicious. Somehow the recipes just seemed more approachable.
I would have been happy to see either book win, but suspected Samarkand might.
Great review!
Betsy March 8, 2017
Thoroughly enjoyed this review. Now, I need to go find and read everything David Plotz, "the Mountain Jew of Vermont" has written!
Greenstuff March 8, 2017
Persia was the only one of the books I had before the Piglet started. I just pulled it off my shell and saw all my stickers, saw all the photographs, and leafed through the text. I will continue to cook from it, but even if I never used a single recipe, I'd be glad I had it.

I'd leafed through Samarkand, but put it back. I was intrigued by the round one review though, and now round two has convinced me. If I love Persia (and I do recommend it), I guess I'll really like its banisher.
Rick March 8, 2017
I've neither book but I like this review for one huge reason - the reviewer cooked a full meal from each so they had an idea of how each fared across a reasonable variety of dishes. I'd actually like to see this or a similar guideline for all future Piglet reviews.
Greenstuff March 8, 2017
That full meal from Dorie's Cookies would be something!
Krista March 8, 2017
Agreed! I'd much rather have ardent cooks than famous writers write the reviews. Or maybe have an author team up with a Food52 community member for each, so that a bit more testing gets done.
James F. March 8, 2017
Loved the review. Was very surprised, because I heard some interviews with Duguid, and assumed the book was good because she's so smart articulating what she does. Here's my question: does the illustration usually show who wins? This one seems to. I don't think that's a good idea - it ruins the tension when you read the review on how it's going to turn out (Though it seems with most, whichever book is the front half of the review is the loser).
karen W. March 8, 2017
I got Samarkand from my library (super quick) and made Afgan Pink chai which I enjoyed making and drinking. Next I made Lamb in puff pastry which was super easy and had a mild flavor. Most of all they looked impressive. Then I had high hopes when I made the Onion Potato Chestnut omelet but my hopes were dashed with the lack of flavor and I returned the book yesterday.
annmartina March 8, 2017
Naomi Duguid's cookbooks (And also those with Jeffrey Alford) are always beautiful and interesting to read. But not usually great to cook from. More often than not the recipes have not been successful for me, which means I stop turning to them.
Krista March 8, 2017
I've made many, many amazing meals from "Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet" and "Mangoes and Curry Leaves" and I treasure them both. "Burma" (just Duguid) is also phenomenal, with almost everything I've made from it a huge hit. "Beyond the Great Wall" was less successful but that might be partially the region visited (many of the recipes are peasant food with few ingredients all of which get repeated - the result is a little boring). I was very excited to get Taste of Persia but for some reason when I flip through it nothing really grabs me, or at least nothing that doesn't require 3 days of prep work.
John-Mark March 9, 2017
I agree that "Beyond the Great Wall" is the least successful of the three Duguid/Alford 'Travel' books but feel the its failure isn't so much the result of a peasant centric cuisine, which can be wonderful in areas that are agriculturally rich. Indeed Samarkand has, despite the best attempts of the Soviets and its relative proximity to the areas featured in "Beyond the Great Wall" a delightful cuisine. A cuisine of extreme scarcity means that kings and slaves alike eat boring food.
Boris A. March 15, 2017
To you, where do the failures lie in Beyond the Great Wall. Thats the only Duguid book I dont have and have had my eye on it!
JennC March 8, 2017
I'm not sure I see the "and so it is again" - liking a lentil soup and meatballs doesn't really compare to burying your enemies alive and making architecture out of skulls. But I enjoyed the discussion of these two books otherwise. Cheers!
petalpusher March 8, 2017
glad I wasn't the only one who got a little creeped out about the history!
Who knew?
SandraH March 8, 2017
Oh you little Piglet - now I need to go to market for more cookbooks. Another great review, eyes opened again to new food cultures, tastes and history. Have also learned from all the commenters here to go get a library card again (thank you!) and have now checked out Made in India and Land of Fish and Rice, plus put a hold on Dorie's Cookies and Deep Run Roots. I have A Bird in the Hand from last year's Piglet so I know I'm going to buy Simple by the sweet Diana Henry (heart her!) and just have to get Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes which I previously wouldn't have had a clue about, because Ronni Lundy's voice presented here sounds so compelling. Okay, now need to go reread some of the reviews and all of the comments of course, to see what else to check out.
creamtea March 8, 2017
Thoughtful review, though I'm disappointed to learn that the Persian meal did not pan out (so to speak). I was looking forward to the reviews of both these books. With barely any shelf space, I am still sorely tempted to purchase both. The notion of cooking a complete meal from each was an excellent one!
Sally M. March 8, 2017
Best review so far this year, as it was objective, fair, and the author didn't have any strong biases for one author or subject. Cooking a whole meal was a superb idea, again leveling the playing field. I have already bought Taste of Persia because I have enjoyed many of Naomi's books but I will definitely buy Samarkand and that is most likely the book I will reach for to try out recipes. I greatly look froward to exploring that corner of the globe from both books. Great review David!
OnionThief March 8, 2017
I am reminded of my small stack of fundraising cookbooks from various hospitals, churches, local clubs. They are all definitely authentic to the cooking of the regions, but that doesn't mean the recipes are legitimately great. I'll usually find an out-of-this-world good yellow cake recipe or a perfect kolache dough, but for the most part it's just the same casseroles, 'fruit'? salads, and dump cakes.
These are all things that real people actually cook. They are perfectly appropriate for a historical or anthropological look at local food ways.
But in a bit piglet cookbook, I don't expect to see the Persian equivalent of beans on toast, or that weird Midwestern US beast, the Chinese chicken salad with crushed ramen noodles.
Helen P. March 8, 2017
Really great review as it pitted two very similar books. I liked that the fact Mr. Plotz did not just pick recipes haphazzardly to try but cooked a full meal from both. As I'm a big food fan of these exotic regions, I've been curious to see where these two books would net out before I make my decision on which to purchase.
Pam H. March 8, 2017
Another stellar review. I love the little nuggets of humor peppered throughout the reviews. Today's gem: "I like to think of myself as a Mountain Jew of Vermont."
malena_watrous March 8, 2017
Agreed. I knew I was going to have a good laugh.
Amy L. March 8, 2017
I had Taste of Persia on my list, but now I'll add Samarkand. I usually get cookbooks out from the library a couple times before I opt to buy them.
Victoria C. March 8, 2017
This is an excellent, comprehensive, and persuasive review. My favorite cookbook of 2016, not just The 2016 Piglet, was Made in India, a book I didn't even know about until The Piglet introduced it to me. I may be surprised again this year! Even if it doesn’t make it to the top, Samarkand sounds wonderful, accessible, appealing, and worth owning. Now I'm going to (1) reread the original Piglet post about Samarkand and (2) call Kalystuan’s and order some barberries.