Life

Yasmin Khan: Food is one of the few ways to can escape the reality of what's going on around you

In new cookbook Ripe Figs, campaigner and food writer Yasmin Khan illuminates the food and people – migrant, refugee and local – of the Eastern Med

Yasmin Khan spent time in refugee camps in Turkey, Cyprus and Greece while researching Ripe Figs

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 Israeli 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 past 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 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.

“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. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.

HOT YOGURT AND SPINACH SOUP

(Serves 4)

For the soup:

85g short or medium-grain white rice (I use Turkish baldo rice, but pudding rice would also work)

1L hot chicken stock

500g full-fat natural yogurt

1 large egg yolk

1½tbsp cornflour

200ml lukewarm water

1tsp dried mint

200g spinach, roughly chopped

Salt and white pepper

For the topping:

40g salted butter

1½tbsp dried mint

1½tsp pul biber (Aleppo pepper), or other mild chilli flakes

Method:

Rinse the rice under running cold water for a few minutes so the starch washes out, then place it in a large saucepan. Pour in the hot stock, cover and simmer for 12–15 minutes, until the rice is cooked.

In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, egg yolk, cornflour and measured lukewarm water until smooth.

When the rice is cooked, take a ladleful of its cooking broth and add it to the cold yogurt mixture, whisking as you do so to warm it up. Then take the saucepan with the rice in it off the heat and very slowly, half a ladle at a time, spoon in the yogurt mixture, whisking all the time so it doesn’t split.

Return the soup to a medium-low heat and add the mint and half a teaspoon each of salt and white pepper. Simmer for five minutes until the soup has thickened.

Add the spinach and cook for a further five minutes, then taste to adjust the seasoning to your preference. In a separate small saucepan, melt the butter for the topping with the dried mint and pul biber.

When you are ready to serve, ladle the soup into warmed bowls, drizzle a couple of teaspoons of the hot chilli-mint butter over each portion and serve immediately.

SOUR CHERRY CHEESECAKE

(Serves 8)

200g digestive biscuits

100g unsalted butter, melted

600g full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature

200g strained full-fat Greek-style yogurt

200g caster sugar

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1tbsp plain flour

1tbsp vanilla extract

1tsp finely grated Unwaxed lemon zest

1tbsp lemon juice

For the topping:

400g frozen, pitted sour cherries (see recipe introduction)

150g caster sugar

1tbsp cornflour

Method:

Line a 23cm springform cake tin with baking parchment. Put the biscuits in a food processor and blitz to crumbs. Alternatively, place them in a plastic bag and hit them with a rolling pin until finely crushed.

Mix the crushed biscuits with the melted butter, then spoon into the prepared tin, pressing down the base to form an even layer. Transfer to the refrigerator to set.

Beat the cream cheese and yogurt until smooth. Whisk in the sugar, eggs and flour, then the vanilla, lemon zest and juice.

Preheat the oven to 160C/fan 140C/Gas 3. Pour the filling into the chilled biscuit base and bake for around one hour. You can tell it is cooked when it looks set but still has a wobble in the middle. Now turn off the oven, open its door and leave the cheesecake to cool for 10 minutes without touching it. Remove it from the oven and leave to cool completely, then chill for four hours.

To make the topping, place the frozen cherries and sugar in a saucepan over a medium heat. Stir frequently to begin with, so the sugar doesn’t catch. Once the cherries have defrosted and the sauce come to the boil, add the cornflour and simmer for five minutes. Set aside and leave to cool.

To serve, either spoon the topping all over the cheesecake, or slice the cheesecake into pieces and place a dollop of cherries on top of each serving.

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