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In Ripe Figs, Yasmin Khan shares stories of resilience and recipes from the Eastern Mediterranean

'Food can have such meaning to migrants because it connects us to feelings of home, feelings of comfort, feelings of safety'

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Our cookbook of the week is Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus by Yasmin Khan. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Eggs with yogurt and chili butter (cilbir); halloumi saganaki; and black-eyed peas with chard (louvi).

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Stretching the boundaries of what a cookbook can be, Yasmin Khan’s latest, Ripe Figs (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021), leaves a mark. Through sharing stories of connection, compassion and resilience, the London-based food and travel writer puts a face on the Eastern Mediterranean refugee crisis.

Khan’s accounts of people who fled to Turkey, Greece and Cyprus in search of safety, as well as locals organizing on a grassroots level, are heartening. Scribbling down notes while meeting with migrants or cooking in community kitchens, she started with the stories. Upon returning home, she tapped into her travels to develop recipes inspired by the food culture of the Eastern Mediterranean and the refugees who have landed there.

As with her previous two books — Zaitoun (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019) and The Saffron Tales (Bloomsbury USA, 2016), focusing on Palestine and Iran, respectively — Khan uses food as a means of promoting understanding. Her aim with Ripe Figs, she says, is to “try and get beyond the stereotypes, and show the human side of migration and also, the stories behind why people move.”

Khan arrived at the idea of focusing on the Eastern Mediterranean after reading the novel Exit West (Riverhead Books, 2017) by Mohsin Hamid, in which migration is a central theme. “It was so powerful, and so moving as a work of fiction. And I remember putting it down and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really going to be one of the issues that defines the next century,’” recalls Khan.

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Simultaneously, she had been noticing a heightened focus on borders around the world — including former U.S. president Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” — and, after a string of crowded boats capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, an increasing number of migrants drowning as they attempted the crossing. “It all just came together to really motivate me to want to write a book about this theme.”

Ripe Figs by Yasmin Khan
Ripe Figs is London-based food and travel writer Yasmin Khan’s third book. Photo by W. W. Norton & Company

During the 2015 refugee crisis, more than one million people crossed the Mediterranean into Europe and many are still making the perilous voyage: “At least 1,773 people died within and en route to Europe in 2020,” according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, “making up the majority of fatalities recorded worldwide.”

Khan focused on Israel/Palestine in her previous nonprofit work as a human rights campaigner. Issues around borders and contested territories have been at the forefront of her mind for several decades, she says. Both researching Ripe Figs and seeing the pandemic play out have shifted her views on the limitations of nation states.

More people are fleeing violence today than at any time since the Second World War, according to a 2019 United Nations refugee agency report, and the World Bank estimates that climate change could displace more than 140 million people by 2050.

“What is that going to mean for how we decide territory and space, and nationalism?” asks Khan. “And certainly the pandemic has shown us, I think, that it is a little bit false to see ourselves as isolated countries, because the challenges that we face are so global.”

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The Eastern Mediterranean was an ideal place to explore issues of borders and migration, she adds. Not only because of the record number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants arriving there, but the fact that its shifting frontiers have been disputed for more than a millennium.

“If the regional border politics can leave you confused, it is strikingly easy to understand the food culture of Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus,” Khan writes. Each country has its own distinct cuisine — and within it, regional and village-to-village specialties — but in Ripe Figs, she focuses on similarities: “And you see so many on the Eastern Mediterranean table.”

Mezze — small shared plates featuring seasonal, locally grown produce, washed down with anise-flavoured spirits — is one such culinary tie that binds. As is a love of grilling meat over hot coals, whether it’s souvlaki in Greece, kebabs in Turkey or sheftalia in Cyprus, fresh herbs, olives and olive oil, legumes, flatbreads and abundant dairy (especially yogurt, sheep and goat cheeses).

More On This Topic

  1. Eggs with yogurt and chili butter from Ripe Figs.

    Cook this: Eggs with yogurt and chili butter — cilbir — from Ripe Figs

  2. Halloumi saganaki from Ripe Figs.

    Cook this: Halloumi saganaki from Ripe Figs

  3. Black-eyed peas with chard (louvi) from Ripe Figs.

    Cook this: Black-eyed peas with chard — louvi — from Ripe Figs

“There’s just so much similarity in the region’s cuisine, which when we’re exploring what borders mean in today’s world, sometimes it’s really useful to imagine a place without these lines that we’ve decided to draw on them,” says Khan. “And perhaps look at the culture being more of a thing that connects people in a place rather than these artificial borders.”

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Though the majority of the recipes in Ripe Figs were inspired by the native cuisines of Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, several serve as a nod to the movement of people through the region. Khan’s exchanges with migrants from places including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen are reflected in dishes such as chana masala and Rakhine chicken curry.

When she was in Lesvos, Greece, the first stop for many migrants en route to Europe given its proximity to Turkey, the largest group of refugee camp residents were Afghans. Khan learned recipes such as borani kadoo (Afghan spiced pumpkin), which she shares in the book. Likewise, a conversation with a Yemeni refugee on the Greek island led her to create a recipe for lentils with preserved lemons and zhoug.

“Food can have such meaning to migrants,” says Khan, “because it connects us to feelings of home, feelings of comfort, feelings of safety.”

Witnessing the conditions migrants live under in crowded camps was “really distressing,” she adds. Held in Lesvos “in utter destitution,” they face increased mental and physical health issues. The images and stories stayed with her for a long time, and she gained a deep respect for those trying to help.

Drawing on her time in Lesvos, she shares stories from the One Happy Family community centre, the non-profit restaurant Home for All — staffed by volunteers who serve daily free meals to the residents of refugee camps — and a restaurant called Nan (named after the Central Asian word for “bread”), which was founded by four Greek women as a space for refugees and locals to work side by side.

“Despite the horrors that I saw in Lesvos, at the same time, I also saw the most incredible examples of our hospitality, of generosity, of openness and service. And it was so inspiring, and so moving. It just restores your faith in humanity,” says Khan. “On a grassroots level, ordinary people are showing that it is possible to organize in a different way. It is possible. We have enough abundance in the world to be able to share the things that we have with others who are in need. And it’s just so important to be reminded of that.”

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