We spoke to travel writer and cook Yasmin Khan about her latest cookbook, Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus (W. W. Norton & Company, May 4, 2021).
Author of two cookbooks, The Saffron Tales and Zaitoun, Yasmin turns her focus to the Eastern Mediterranean in Ripe Figs. Using the kitchen table as a lens through which to explore the issues of borders and identity in an interconnected world, she traces various migration stories in her travelogues and recipes.
We chatted about the inspiration behind the book, her research process and the importance of documenting both the good and the bad in travel writing. Below is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation. Yasmin was also kind enough to share her recipe for Cypriot potato salad.
How did this book come about? What was the inspiration for it?
In London, I live in the neighborhood of Hackney, and it’s a really vibrant area that has a lot of history of Greek, Cypriot and Turkish migration. I’ve lived in this kind of vibrant Eastern Mediterranean melting pot for about 12 years, and that certainly has inspired me to delve deeper into the flavors of the region. And it made me want to write a book that celebrated the recipes and the dishes that I’m served on a daily basis, whether it’s in the baklava stores on my street or the Turkish greengrocers, which have shelves laden with halloumi, marinated olives and pomegranate molasses.
So it started from home. And then in recent years politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have really put the issue of migration and borders to the forefront of political discourse, whether it was Brexit or Trump’s policies along the Mexican border and then the Muslim ban. Tied in with that was the huge pouring of refugees who were dying in the Mediterranean. All of these events were making headlines, and I felt that there is a wider issue around borders and migration and how we deal with the movement of people that needs to be addressed. And the Eastern Mediterranean is a great area that enables you to talk about all of those issues.
As you write in the book, “Eastern Mediterranean” can have such broad parameters, and everyone defines it differently. What made you decide to focus on Greece, Turkey and Cyprus?
I started off being really inspired by a meal that I had with a Cypriot friend who was telling me about his island and the border divisions in it. I thought a book on Cyprus would be fascinating because it encapsulates all of the challenges of a national identity and border disputes, just in one place. And then my partner at the time – he’s not my partner anymore – was of Turkish origin, and his grandfather had been involved in the population exchange between Greece and Turkey right after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, so we spoke a lot about that. And then the refugee crisis came in as well. At first I thought I was just going to write a book about Cyprus, and then I thought I should pull out a bit more.
What we appreciate about the book is that there are a lot of different layers of migration – the migration of your mom’s family from Iran to Birmingham, and then the migration of people from the Eastern Mediterranean to London, and then like the migration of refugees, from Syrians to Yemenis and Afghanis, through the Eastern Mediterranean today – and that the recipes reflect all of these various journeys. With such a wide range of cuisines to choose from, how did you decide which recipes to include?
With all of my books, the recipe selection just comes down to things that I like to eat! Which tend to be generally more vegetable-focused dishes. I also love beans, pulses and legumes. From that respect, one of the things that I love the most about writing cookbooks is that, as well as being this reflection of a region that I’m visiting, they’re actually a reflection of my home because I test all the recipes in my kitchen with my friends and my family.
Sometimes cookbooks that focus on the cuisine of a particular country can face a certain rigidity – were all the must-eat or classic dishes included? Whereas focusing on a wider region and migration as a theme seemed to provide some more flexibility.
From a creative point of view, this is what I wanted to do – it reflects more how I cook, which is with a melding bunch of influences. I’m of mixed heritage, so I’m pretty flexible in terms of… fusion’s such a terrible word, isn’t it? Let’s say instead, just having a flexible approach to putting ingredients together.
That’s what I really like about zooming out and looking at a region – you can go, well they do that there and that happens over there, and how can I put those two together? Creatively, it’s fun.
This is a challenging thing that always comes up in the food arena, but I don’t think that there is any “quintessential” or “authentic” way of cooking anything, because food culture changes every twenty years or so. To take a British example, how a Shepherd’s pie was made in the U.K. twenty years ago is so different to how it would be made now – now we’re likely to add in more spices, and maybe we’d use sweet potato on top, or it could be made vegan. Like a language, it’s constantly evolving and constantly changing. Plus, one person’s granny’s authentic moussaka recipe is going to be so different to another person’s granny’s recipe. So I try not to get too bogged down in that.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the research process?
It was really mixed. Some of it involved putting shout-outs on social media, saying that I’m going to this place and does anyone know anyone there? That often is a starting point. Other times it might be reaching out to nonprofits and small refugee organizations, and saying, I’m in town and would love to visit. I did a Culinary Backstreets tour with Carolina in Athens, and that was a really wonderful introduction – we hit it off and talking to her gave me lots of ideas.
I tend to do my books quite slowly. On my first trip to Greece, I was there for six weeks; so I had time to travel around, speak to people. It’s all quite fluid.
In addition to recipes, “Ripe Figs” includes travelogues that reflect the reality – the good and the bad – of traveling for and researching the book, like how certain things you imagined happening didn’t actually work out. It left us wondering, how does the final version differ from what you first imagined when you started writing it?
I certainly never thought I’d be writing about a miscarriage in the beginning of a book – I didn’t really expect that. It’s interesting because I actually very much struggled with the book. Maybe all writers struggle with their writing, but it did feel hard to bring together some of the really difficult things that I’d witnessed and which I felt were important to talk about in a book that, ultimately, you want people to read and then feel inspired to rush into the kitchen, not be super depressed about the state of the world. So from the narrative point of view, it took a long time to decide on the tone.
But I’ve realized now, and this is the third book that I’ve done, that my readers – or all readers, actually – appreciate being spoken to like adults. I think everyone can appreciate that life is both beautiful and challenging, difficult and easy, joyous and sad. Life is all of those things, and if the year of the pandemic has shown us anything it’s that food can also be all of those things. Some people rushed into the kitchen and are making banana bread all the time while some people have been like, this is all so terrible, I’m just going to survive on toasted cheese sandwiches, and that’s all okay.
I’m part of the Instagram culture of posting photos of my food and my travels, but I’m also really conscious that it does depict a warped type of reality. And when we all look back on the travels and the adventures that we’ve had in our lives, sometimes we remember those really magical sunsets, but often we remember, like, that terrible trip I took when I split up with my boyfriend. Or that night where I stayed in the worst hotel and didn’t sleep at all, and the people in the room next door were keeping me awake. And that’s cool because in the years to come, that’s actually the stuff that’s just as sweet, even though at the time it wasn’t necessarily wonderful.
And that’s what I love about travel. Anybody who really loves travel knows that it is often uncomfortable and unpleasant but that it’s still somehow addictive because it’s a sensory experience, and that’s what I wanted to share.
Were there any migration stories or dishes that were particularly unexpected or surprising when researching the book?
There was so much surprise. I didn’t expect the situation in the camps to be so bad. I know that we all read about it, and have been reading about it for ages, but there’s something about the actual experience, and so many people saying to me, if I’d have known it was going to be this bad, I wouldn’t have come, I wouldn’t have left my home. And just the sadness that people felt from being in a worse situation than the really terrible situation that they were in, whether that was in Syria or Yemen or Iran, was heartbreaking – to be in Europe and see people treated in such a degrading way. The European Union is supposed to be this bastion of equality and liberty, and isn’t always. That was pretty brutal.
And like in all travels, it’s often the people that you meet that are the most memorable. So, for example, Lena, who runs the Nan restaurant on Lesvos, was such an inspiring woman and so dedicated to supporting new migrants on the island, creating this incredible restaurant-social center, which was such a wonderful place to hang out, eat good food and talk about this stuff. So it was surprising, or maybe inspiring is the better word, to constantly be meeting all these characters. Like Nikos and Katerina as well, who turned their restaurant [on Lesvos] into an NGO to feed people. It restored my faith in humanity.
So it was this weird thing of me cycling through all these emotions, of how this is the worst experience a human can have, being held in a degrading camp for an indefinite amount of time, with no sanitation, no proper food, no shelter. And then on the other hand, the generosity and power and kindness that humans have for each other is just incredible.
The book begins in Greece and then moves to Turkey. Was there a particular reason to end with Cyprus?
Cyprus brings Greece and Turkey together, and it felt like the starkest example of how man-made borders create artificial divisions where previously there were none, and the futility of nation states within that context. I wanted to end it on that note.
Many of the people that I spoke to and ate with [on Cyprus] are activists who are trying to bring reunification in the island, and I felt like that was the ultimate goal of the book as well, to show and speak to the fact that humans would actually do a lot better to learn how to coexist without dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller bordered nations, because that hasn’t really been how we’ve existed throughout the last few millennia. And going forward, with the climate crisis looming, I don’t think it’s going to serve us in the future.
Is there anything you think I’ve missed or that you think our readers would like to know?
I just want to say that I absolutely loved the Culinary Backstreets tours that I did, and that’s why I mentioned them in the book. For me, it was just such a wonderful way to learn about a city. They’re really brilliant, I couldn’t recommend them more and would definitely book to go on them again.
Recipe: Cypriot potato salad
A zesty, herb-packed potato salad, perfect for serving alongside grilled meats or fish. Try to use Kalamata olives here, but, if you can’t find those, just aim for the olives to be oily rather than briny in these dishes. I don’t know what it is about Cyprus potatoes that makes them taste so extraordinarily good, but if you can find any of these flavorsome spuds you won’t be disappointed. If not, any waxy or new potatoes will do. Just be sure to toss the dressing in while the potatoes are still warm, as they absorb the flavors better.
2 lb 2 oz/1kg Cyprus or new potatoes
finely grated zest of 1 medium unwaxed lemon
¼ red onion, finely sliced
1/3 cup/60g black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons capers,
drained and rinsed
handful of mint leaves,
handful of cilantro,
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and black pepper
Cut the potatoes into large (2-inch/5cm) chunks. I like to leave the skins on, but remove them if you prefer.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and the potatoes to the pot and boil for about 12 minutes until they are soft. Drain and place in a serving bowl.
Add all the remaining ingredients along with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a generous grind of black pepper.
Click here to buy “Ripe Figs,” which is out now.
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