Her new book, Ripe Figs, focuses on the glorious cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean and the connections that food brings.

By Leah Bhabha
July 12, 2021
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portrait of yasmin khan outside at sunset
Credit: Courtesy of WW Norton / Matt Russell

Many of us have spent the past year and a half taking in our surroundings out of sheer necessity; we reacquainted ourselves with local grocery stores, spent more time in the kitchen, and tried to appreciate the small pleasures of being homebound in an intense, anxious time. Pre-pandemic, London-based cookbook author and travel writer Yasmin Khan had been taking great pleasure in her neighborhood of Hackney for years, particularly the wealth of Eastern Mediterranean food shops she visited multiple times a week. "All the grocers, fishmongers, and bakers are from that area of the world—specifically Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece—it's a place where your local store sells crates of halloumi and pomegranate molasses alongside heaps of fresh herbs," she says. Shopping in these stores inspired much of the cooking she was doing at home over the past years and her newest book Ripe Figs ($35.26, amazon.com).

She dove even deeper into these cultures when reading the news; the region was seeing the largest movement of people since World War II, due to mass immigration from wars in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. "I started to think about where I live and how I saw the melding of borders in the region and at the kitchen table," she recalls. "What really interested me was that the food culture of all three places is so similar." So, Khan decided to travel to Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey to learn not only the local cooking techniques and recipes, but also those brought to the region by the large influx of recent refugees. "People could write whole books—and they have done—diving into the differences between cuisines," says Khan. "But I wanted to pull back and look at points of connection and similarities as a theme in the book." Here, some of the most compelling ingredients, techniques, and insights she added to her arsenal.

yaskim khans ripe figs cook book
Credit: Courtesy of WW Norton

A Wealth of Grilled Meats

Whether it's kebabs in Turkey, souvlaki in Greece, or sheftalia in Cyprus, Khan was particularly taken with the ways in which the region excels in meats simply grilled over hot coals. "They use prime cuts and serve with salads coated in tangy dressing, beautiful flatbreads like pideh and pita, and potatoes, either roasted or fried," she says.

Plant-Based Dishes

In the Eastern Mediterranean region, plant-based meals are nothing new. Tastes and religious rituals mean that hearty vegetable dishes are a central part of the cuisine. Khan found herself particularly drawn to these recipes, which include braised and boiled greens known as horta, fava bean dip (called fava), and other varieties of wild, leafy green vegetables cooked and served simply with high quality olive oil and lemon juice. In Turkey specifically, Khan loved the use of pomegranate molasses with lime as a dressing for salads and grilled onions piled high with fresh herbs.

Mezze

Mezze—a selection of small appetizer-style dishes—unites all the countries and Khan expanded her knowledge of this course. "I learned that it's not just about how you serve [the mezze]," she recalls, "but more about the way in which it creates a long meal that's drawn out using seasonal ingredients as a background for conversation and hanging out." The various mezze are served, she says, with plenty of wine, arak, or ouzo. One of her favorite mezze preparations is made with halloumi, the salty, stretchy cheese eaten throughout the region. Khan spent an afternoon in Cyprus learning to make halloumi saganaki, where the cheese is sliced, dusted in semolina, and pan-fried to become crispy on the outside and soft and melty inside. This recipe she serves with thyme-infused honey over salad leaves with fruit like pomegranate and figs, depending on the season.

Breads and Pastries

Khan particularly enjoyed learning to prepare the breads and pastries of the region, and she developed a recipe for Cypriot olive bread, where onions, garlic, and olives are kneaded into a loaf, creating a soft crumb. The book also includes tahini swirls, a breakfast pastry reminiscent of cinnamon rolls, which are eaten in various iterations throughout the region.

Community Through Cuisine

"Even though it seemed like some of the issues I was exploring were quite hard-hitting and not easy for the people living there or for me to explore, one of the things if found time and time again was how inspiring it was to see all these brilliant community initiatives being set up for for migrant women to learn skills and language and eat together and cook together," Khan says. On the Greek island of Lesbos, she met a husband and wife team who ran a local fish restaurant. After encountering a group of migrants coming into shore on a boat from Syria, the husband returned to the boat with food, clothes, and blankets. Since then, the couple have changed their restaurant into a non-profit space where recent refugees can come to eat a home-cooked meal. "They wanted to give them a sense of welcoming, invitation, and belonging. By feeding them, they wanted to say 'you are welcome here,'" Khan explains.

Resilience in the Kitchen

It's an interesting time for the book to come out, Khan notes, as the kitchen has been a form of escapism for so many people during the pandemic. During her travels, she encountered communities who had lost so much and yet still, when she was cooking and talking with them, they would break into a smile while recounting a favorite recipe or meal with friends.

A Book to Transport the Home Cook

Khan hopes that these recipes and stories help transport people to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean after a year where travel has been out of reach. "I also hope that the stories in the book get people thinking about how throughout the whole of human history, people have migrated, and that migration is just a part of what it means to be human," she adds. "The book tries to highlight our similarities—humans have more to unite us than to divide us."

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