Yasmin Khan: Cooking is one of the few ways you can escape the reality of what’s going on around you
As you’d expect, there’s many a plum-coloured, tear-shaped fig in Yasmin Khan’s new cookbook, Ripe Figs. More so though, there is strength, pain, hope, heroism, loss, and lots and lots of olive oil.
“I get through too much olive oil,” says the London-based food writer with a laugh. “I definitely get through those big one-litre bottles probably more than I’d like to admit.”
It’s a crucial component in Eastern Mediterranean cuisines; even treated reverentially as a seasoning, not just a lowly cooking medium. “I love that,” says Khan 40. “I just have a bottle of olive oil I bring to the table in the same way I’d have salt and pepper.” Those liberal sloshes of olive oil – be it in a Cypriot-style chocolate and orange mousse, or dressing barbecued sardines in vine leaves – embody the generosity and hospitality Khan chronicles in the book, through gleaned recipes and moving reportage.
It took four separate trips to the Eastern Med – each two to seven weeks long, over the course of a year – for Khan to pull together the stories she shares from cooks, restaurant owners, volunteers, migrants and refugees across Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. These encounters sit between ideas for hot yoghurt soup, sour cherry cheesecake and Afghan spiced pumpkin.
Take Lena – a teacher by day, restaurateur by night – of social enterprise NAN on Greek island Lesbos, which feeds locals and refugees alike (“The meals would take ages to arrive, but it didn’t really matter. You’d all be chatting and Lena would flit between the tables and always had a rolled up cigarette in her hands”) and Katerina, of Home for All, also on Lesbos, where equality is paramount, and people from the Moria refugee camp – prior to Covid and the camp burning down – were served meals on proper plates, on white tablecloths.
However, having worked as a campaigner on human rights issues for almost 20 years, covering everything from UK deaths in custody to the occupation of Palestine, Khan says researching Ripe Figs was arguably hardest – because “it’s so abstract, the refugee and migrant story”.
Between Trump’s presidency, Brexit and the coverage of Channel crossings, it’s one that’s dominated headlines in the last few years, “but when you actually are in these camps or speaking to people, and you hear the stories of how much people risk and what they go through, and what they get at the end of it; to say something is heart-breaking feels a little bit gauche or patronising,” says Khan. “It’s just so unjust.”
Ripe Figs, she hopes, will help change the persistently negative narratives around migration. “Don’t get me wrong, with the climate crisis, we are going to see huge numbers of people moving because they have to,” says Khan, but “it’s also really important to realise that throughout human history, for the thousands and thousands of years we’ve existed on this planet, we have always moved; people have moved through empires, for trade, for agricultural reasons. This notion of statehood and nation states is pretty modern.” Camps and human rights abuses seen at borders, are, “I think, trying to stifle something that has naturally existed for our species,” she adds.
Covid has of course added a layer of complication to an already complicated situation. “We’re in a pandemic, there’s a lot going on,” says Khan ruefully, acknowledging that the global context has shifted since she started writing the book. “There’s a lot of struggle in the world at the moment.” But food – sharing it, cooking it, eating it – can, she believes, cut through all that.
“Amidst this really difficult situation that many of the people I was speaking to found themselves in, we could always find ourselves smiling or laughing when we started sharing recipes, or when we were working in the kitchen,” Khan recalls. “Food and cooking; it’s one of the few ways you can escape the reality of what is going on around you. It can provide huge solace and comfort.”
It’s definitely been a distraction technique and way of travelling that many of us have eked cheer from during months of lockdown cooking. Khan, who is half-Pakistani, half-Iranian finds it “extraordinary” that through a recipe from a specific country, city or even town, you can “transport a little bit of that culture into people’s homes in other places in the world”.
That you can pick up her cookbooks, which trace recipes from Iran (The Saffron Tales), Palestine (Zaitoun), and the Eastern Med (Ripe Figs), and recreate them “in Birmingham, or Brooklyn, or Berlin”.
And really, a plate of food is never just a plate of food. “When you learn about a food culture, you’re not just learning about a set of ingredients, you’re learning about a place’s history, its agriculture, its economy, maybe its gender relations, its climate,” says Khan. “Food has got such an extraordinary power to tell us a story.”
Be it Katerina or Lena, the people Khan spoke and cooked with weren’t just feeding hungry people dinner; meals were intrinsically braided with kindness; the cooks intent on preserving a person’s dignity, whatever their circumstances. “It was about telling someone, ‘I care about you, and I want you to know that I’m here, that there is support out there for you’,” explains Khan. “The food embodied that so much more than just the calories.”
Khan had three miscarriages during the course of writing the book. “I was interviewing a lot of people who are going through lots of grief; I was also going through similar processes,” she says, noting how grief – be it personal or collective – can affect our relationship with food and cooking. “Our appetite for life is so linked to our appetite for being able to enjoy food.”
She doesn’t obscure sadness or retreat from difficult moments, but there’s an irrefutable backbone of hope to Ripe Figs. Turning its pages, the red clay soils, grey-green olive trees and zing of the Eastern Med’s citrus fruits – all that “beautiful warming sunny food” – offer brightness, distraction, and a certain amount of freedom.
“I know first-hand how much these recipes brought the people I was meeting with joy,” says Khan, “and how much they brought me comfort.”
Ripe Figs: Recipes And Stories From The Eastern Mediterranean by Yasmin Khan, photography by Matt Russell, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £26. Available now.