I've been vegetarian for over ten years, and am always looking for creative, healthy ways to spice up my cooking. I've taught students from more than 100 countries, including many from Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) who were eager to share their languages and cuisines with me. However, there are very few cookbooks that focus on this region, even less so from a vegetarian context, so this is one cuisine that remained relatively unknown to me.
In "Silk Road Vegetarian," Dahlia Abraham-Klein has compiled over 120 vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free recipes that serve as an exploration and a celebration of the foods from the Silk Road, from elegant jeweled polos / palaus, curries and dal, Persian kookoos and soups/stews, Bukharian stuffed veggies to shawarma-spiced potatoes, curried veggies, and a wealth of lighter desserts.
Along the way, you'll read about Dahlia's culinary pilgrimage and her family's roots in Persia, Afghanistan, Bukhara, India and Israel. The book begins with an excellent and compact illustrated guide to the spice pantry, tips on basic preparation for tofu, legumes, rice and quinoa (with a handy illustrated guide to the various types of rice available and four pages of descriptions and cooking instructions), an excellent guide to food preservation via freezing (which I have not seen in other cookbooks) that gives a step-by-step overview of various cooking and storing methods that will allow you to make the most of an abundance of seasonal produce (or leftovers from your CSA box).
You'll find quick and basic staples like hummus, tahini, harissa, za'atar, and chutney, light appetizers including stuffed grape leaves, kookoo (herb frittata), Sephardic leek patties, and an amazing Indian red lentil falafel (especially since I am not normally a fan of either lentils OR falafel!). There are many fresh salads like orange and fennel, minted beet salad, curried spinach salad with apples and grapes, and roasted veggies (I particularly enjoyed the roasted carrots with feta and parsley, which I made with rainbow carrots and sheep's milk feta).
Curries and hearty stews tend to dominate the main dishes, including curried lentil burgers, chickpea and lentil curries. I really enjoyed the Afghan squash goulash and Afghan risoto; Afghan cooking is relatively unknown to me. As I am a huge fan of rice dishes (and frequently serve them as a main meal), I really appreciated the wide range of polos (shirin polo, with jewel-like dried orange strips, adas polo with apricots and caramelized onions) and Bukharian pilafs. The quick and easy veggie sides are the perfect way to round out a meal.
The chapter on desserts offers many lighter (mostly vegan) options, including several rice puddings, parfaits, quick breads, and fruit-based desserts (I tried the orange blossom date balls and they were a hit). Those who are on a gluten-free diet will also appreciate that all the baked goods are also GF, including buckwheat hamentaschen, cinnamon apple cake, and berry-almond coconut scones.
The instructions are clear (and the font thankfully large / dark enough to read easily from a cookbook holder) and the ingredients should be commonly available at your supermarket (despite the many Persian and Central Asian recipes, Dahlia uses commonly available substitutes - cranberries for barberries, for example, although you will find one that calls for limoo Omani - dried limes). Gorgeous full-color photos illustrate about half of the recipes. There are step-by-step photos for some of the techniques, making "Silk Road Vegetarian" approachable by any level of cook.
"Silk Road Vegetarian" has given me many new quick and healthy recipes that can be assembled even on a hectic weeknight, and the exotic spices will transport your taste buds. I loved the section on preserving and freezing fruits and veggies, as all too often I found myself throwing away perfectly good produce. This is a perfect cookbook for one who is new to vegetarian / vegan cooking as the clear instructions (particularly for washing and soaking the various types of rice and the guide to preserving fruits and veggies) and step-by-step photos make it easy to follow along.
(Review copy courtesy of the author)