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

219da04d 9464 4667 a1a6 d1054656d52f  plotz headshot

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? (32 comments)

user avatar 23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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user avatar 23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar
23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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.

817a2e06 428e 44b9 bd8f 2e068393bb4e  stringio

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"

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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!"

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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!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Thoroughly enjoyed this review. Now, I need to go find and read everything David Plotz, "the Mountain Jew of Vermont" has written!

84baef1b 1614 4c3d a895 e859c9d40bd1  chris in oslo

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.

566c9e61 0705 44b8 b433 318abf9afcfe  stringio

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.

84baef1b 1614 4c3d a895 e859c9d40bd1  chris in oslo

That full meal from Dorie's Cookies would be something!

195d3425 5ce0 4767 bff6 37c518a07ce8  stringio

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.

Be3ab7fe d533 4bc8 8658 87caa9c9ee40  fb avatar

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).

B77903fb a461 4ccc 88f2 072f5006cfef  fb avatar

I'm sorry David had such a bad experience with Persian food. I really love it - though I've not cooked from Naomi's book.
I loved this review. David surely put them to a side-by-side test and Samarkand won fair and square.
Interesting that Naomi's book won an IACP award. I wonder what the judges cooked from it.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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.

195d3425 5ce0 4767 bff6 37c518a07ce8  stringio

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.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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.

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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!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

glad I wasn't the only one who got a little creeped out about the history!
Who knew?

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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.

48dd002c 4c45 4b84 8006 ac8614d467cd  dsc00859 2

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!

4a90d26e d195 4bee 883f a4f46fe9d6ea  fb avatar

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!

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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.

Ae390abf 73c2 45fb 8834 5638805449c3  fb avatar

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.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

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."

15f9386a ecdb 407f 8bde ea802da8e940  stringio

Agreed. I knew I was going to have a good laugh.

3746a000 f0f8 4ad3 b9af 6be9fb2278df  fb avatar

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.