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A trip to Bishkek’s Dordoi Bazaar with writer Caroline Eden

Source: Meduza

A trip to Bishkek’s Dordoi Bazaar with writer Caroline Eden

Source: Meduza
James Talalay / Alamy / Vida Press

“I can only sit still for about six to eight weeks at a time,” said writer and literary critic Caroline Eden. An avid adventurer with a taste for local cuisine, Caroline is best known for her books Samarkand, Black Sea, and Red Sands, which blend travel writing and recipes from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and beyond.

I happened to catch her at home, fresh off a trip through Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine that provided ample material for her recently launched newsletter, Journeys Beyond Borders. In Ukraine, she traveled south to Odesa to revisit the people and places she encountered in 2016–2017 when researching Black Sea. An updated edition of the book came out last November, which includes a new introduction reflecting on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a fascinating essay about eating lunch on the Bosphorus with Turkish ship spotter Yörük Işık, and, of course, an extra recipe.

While working on updating Black Sea, Caroline had yet to visit wartime Ukraine. But during her travels to cities like Bishkek, Istanbul, and Warsaw, she saw firsthand how Russia’s war reverberates throughout the wider region. “What happens on the Black Sea tends to spread further beyond its watery borders and into surrounding countries — and that was part of my reason for writing the book initially,” she explained. “It does feel like the center of the geopolitical world in many ways.”

Upon returning to Odesa in February, Caroline found that two years of all-out war had transformed the city deeply, though not beyond recognition. Retracing her steps, she visited the famous Pryvoz Market, where she met food vendors struggling to keep their businesses afloat in wartime. A couple of the restaurants Caroline had written about in her book had closed. And the locals she spoke to seemed worried about global attention shifting away from Ukraine. “I immediately noticed that there weren’t very many young people around because either they’ve left or they’re fighting, and the people who were there just looked exhausted,” she said. 

Caroline said the mood in Odesa lifted around Valentine’s Day, though only briefly. “Every other person on the street was carrying a bouquet of flowers,” she recalled. “The hotel I always stay in went full-on for Valentine’s and had petals and hearts scattered [everywhere], confetti on the floor, and a full booking for the night. But the following morning, at 4:00 a.m., we were in the bomb shelter because the air raid sirens were going off.” (Russia’s missile and drone strikes on Odesa would only intensify in the weeks that followed.)

Once home from her travels, Caroline set about recording the audiobook for her forthcoming memoir, Cold Kitchen: A Year of Culinary Journeys, which will be released in the United Kingdom on May 9 (the U.S. edition hits stores in January 2025). Over the course of 12 chapters, each with a recipe at the end, Caroline takes readers inside her subterranean Edinburgh kitchen as she prepares dishes that evoke memories of different places that have influenced her thinking, work, and life. “It’s quite a meandering book,” she told me. “But the idea is that you can travel very well in the kitchen, with some imagination.” 

The following story was written by Caroline Eden for Meduza’s weekly email newsletter The Beet. The accompanying recipe is from her book, Red Sands.

A trip to the Dordoi Bazaar

By Caroline Eden

Kyrgyzstan might be landlocked, but Bishkek, the country’s capital, has a market forged entirely from shipping containers. Dordoi Bazaar is made up of thousands of these steel boxes covering the equivalent of 160 rugby fields. Flipped on their sides and doubled up, they make efficient shops, rigged with lights and padlocked securely at night. Distinct in spirit and commerce, Kyrgyzstan’s biggest bazaar offers particular insights into local trade wars, hospitality, food, and the new Silk Road. Among locals, it is sometimes called the Dordoi Republic.

Thornton Cohen / Alamy / Vida Press

Dordoi employs 70,000 or so workers, officially and unofficially: drivers, unpackers, cooks, shopkeepers, tea boys, toilet attendants, security guards, waitresses, exchange tellers, and tailors. Pushers and pullers, handlers and dealers. All busy importing, exporting, and re-exporting. What may look anarchic at first is actually a very well-oiled operation. Money dictates order, and the bazaar is far too profitable to be chaotic. Dordoi has its own football (soccer) team and a mosque that is well-attended on Fridays.

Gold-painted statues of a man and two women flank the main entrance, a life-size monument to Central Asia’s “shuttle traders,” entrepreneurs who commute between different countries, buying goods in one location and then selling them elsewhere for profit. Memorialized, too, in gold, are piles of bulging suitcase-sized bags that each statue leans against. These familiar-looking squares of checkered woven plastic with handles are an instantly recognizable universal symbol of people on the move, of the entrepreneur and the newly arrived. 

Food also plays a vital role. Inside, on an average day, you’ll see tea ladies weaving and waltzing through the alleys, their trolleys set up with tea, coffee, and condensed milk, pushing deeper into the twisting, gurgling intestines of the bazaar’s ever-hungry belly. Prams operate as moveable cafés, too, with Thermoses filled with tea and blankets swaddling freshly baked samsa and bread. Trolleys of kumys, fermented mare’s milk, go whizzing by, white and splashing. Sometimes a cart, displaying all the ingredients for ashlan-fu (a noodle dish) or a giant mound of plov, topped with quail eggs, is pushed along. 

Caroline Eden

But one of the best places to eat is tucked between the China and Europe zones, where, if you search, you’ll spot a vendor tending to a tiny oven filled with rows of flaky samsa slowly turning ever more golden. Square rather than triangular, and filled with chicken rather than the more typical pumpkin, lamb, or mutton, the cook arranges his samsa in lines so their corners point upwards like a mountain range. Hot and moreish, the baker prepares 200 or so of these over the course of a lunchtime — and it is impossible to pass by without making a purchase. 

The recipe below, from Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland, is a nod to those delicious samsa served at the Dordoi Bazaar.

Grand Asia Express Samsa

Essentially triangular Central Asian turnovers, samsa are eaten everywhere and are typically filled with lamb, potato, or pumpkin. They make for a perfect snack, eaten hot on the spot. Here’s a quick recipe named after the legions of trucks and truckers that arrive and depart from Dordoi Bazaar, picking up a samsa or two for their long border-crossing journeys. The onion seeds make a nice addition, but they are optional.

(Twelve is a great number for a party or gathering but a lot for a small household. You can simply divide all the ingredients in half to make six.)


  • 400g/14oz chicken breasts
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 medium-size potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 x 500g/1lb 2oz packet of puff pastry 
  • 1 egg, beaten, for an egg wash
  • 1 tbsp onion seeds (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 and prepare a small roasting tin by lining it with tin foil.

Put the chicken breasts in the tin, rub them with olive oil, and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Roast them in the oven for 25 minutes or until cooked through. Set aside to cool, then roughly chop.

Ola O. Smit

Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil and cook the potatoes for 15 minutes or until soft. Drain and set aside to cool.

Pulse the onion in a food processor until very fine, then add the cooled potatoes, and pulse again. Add the chicken, cumin, a good pinch of salt and pepper, and pulse again to bring the mixture together — you may need to scrape the sides of the bowl down as you go.

On a lightly floured surface, cut the pastry into quarters, then cut each quarter into thirds. Roll out each piece of pastry so that you have 12 rectangles, roughly 17 x 10cm (7 x 4in). Drop 40g/2 tbsp of the mixture onto one end of each rectangle, leaving a border around the edge. Brush the edges of the pastry with a little of the egg, then fold the other half over the top, pressing the edges together to seal well. Repeat with the remaining pastry. Brush the top of each samsa with egg and scatter over the onion seeds, if using. Place the samsas on the tray and bake for around 25–30 minutes until cooked through and completely golden.

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Opening interview by Eilish Hart for The Beet

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