Two stories in Yasmin Khan’s Ripe Figs cookbook tell the story of the power of food.
In the first, Khan recounts how Greek volunteers started bringing food containers for migrants who were sleeping in a park – but insisted that the food be homemade. “We wanted to send the message that someone cares about you. Care enough to spend their afternoon baking a cake that smells or feels like home, ”said Nadina Christopoulou, one of the founders of the initiative.
The second is the story of Home for All, a restaurant on the shores of a fishing port on the edge of the Gulf of Yera in Lesvos where every day 40 immigrants are brought from some of the most notorious and violent refugee camps to eat in a bright, communal and vibrant restaurant. “Being able to eat in this comfort, at the table, with adequate cutlery, it gives dignity to people, it reminds them who they are. They feel like at home, ”said Katerina Katsouris, who co-owns Home for All with her husband.
These treatments are what inspired Khan, the chef and author of Zaitoon, to travel to Greece, Turkey and Cyprus to cook in refugee camps. She saw how our humanity can be restored on a plate of food; a glass of wine; a conversation at a shared table. The cookbook focuses on the similarities between the foods of each place. In this way, writes Khan, “you can begin to see similarities where political boundaries emphasize division and difference.” Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
You say you want this book to open people’s eyes to the migrant crisis. Why did you think a cookbook would be a good place to revive this topic?
Food is an incredibly powerful vehicle in helping us understand ourselves and the world around us. When you discover food, you don’t just learn a set of ingredients, you learn more about history, geography, migration. For many years, I have been a human rights activist, working on issues ranging from police shootings to the blockade of Gaza. What I’ve learned is that when you’re trying to raise awareness about some pretty heavy political issues, the most important thing to do is try to make a connection. Food is such a wonderful way to connect people because it’s so visceral, something we can all relate to.
In the US and UK there is often an attitude towards migration that ‘We don’t have enough ”. You find people who really don’t have much to open their arms about – and not just say: ‘We will give you a sandwich ‘, more ‘We will make sure that everything we offer is homemade ”. Tell me about this difference.
Turkey is the largest recipient of refugees in the world, there are 3.6 million refugees in Turkey. In 2020, the United States settled just under 12,000. The way refugees and migrants have been used as scapegoats by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic doesn’t really reflect the number of people who moving to these countries, nor the fact that migration is only an essential part of what it means to be human. . Throughout our history, we have always evolved for our survival.
You mention in the book that you have chosen Greek, Cypriot and Turkish recipes to focus on the similarities between the places where governments insist on seeing the difference.
Absolutely. Borders are entirely an artificial construction. The very notion of the nation-state is very recent in human history – we are mainly interested in a few hundred years. I just wanted to step back and look at the area, where we don’t see any man-made lines and try, yes, to celebrate the commonalities.
You believe in open borders.
We have open borders for part of society. The rich can move around very easily. Cyprus is a classic example: on the one hand, you have refugees who make perilous journeys over rough waters and small boats, trying to get to the island, and then potentially put in a camp. And then, for others, there is [investor citizenship schemes] where, if you invest 2 million euros in Cyprus, you can buy a European passport.
In many Western democracies, especially the US and UK, there is often a presumption that good food is a luxury or middle class concern – a thing of rich people. I wonder what you think of this state of mind?
I am of mixed origin: my mother is from Iran, my father is from Pakistan. My family is made up of small farmers from northern Iran. Food is a great occasion to celebrate in my family. Every meal – be it breakfast, lunch or dinner – is one of the highlights of the day.
Sometimes people ask me, wasn’t it hard to talk to people about food in this really tough situation? No, of course it wasn’t, it was really fun! In [some places], people live to eat, and the concept of food relates to a larger concept of community. That’s wonderful. Food is like a universal language that allows you to communicate feelings of empathy, connection, hope, love.
What do you hope this book will open people’s eyes to?
That there isn’t some sort of migration crisis – that’s exactly what happens when you put up fences and walls. This is the wrong answer. Since humans have existed, we have traveled and migration is an integral part of survival. I just hope the book fosters greater understanding and empathy for refugees and migrants so that we can begin to coexist on a shared planet, as we deserve.
Smoked Lima Beans – Gigantes Plaki
It’s one of those hard-hitting pantry recipes that’s easy to whip up mid-week and takes inspiration from a traditional Greek dish of baked beans in a tomato sauce. What gives this dish its unique flavor is the paprika (I add both the smoky and sweet versions, not the hot and spicy type), which adds a richness and potting mix that I find irresistible. I alternate between sprinkling crumbled feta on this dish and having it plain, because it is just as delicious without. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Preparation 10 minutes
cook 65 min
Hard 4 as part of a mezze or 2-3 as a main course
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 time 400g can of diced Italian tomatoes
1 teaspoon Granulated sugar
1½ teaspoon dried oregano
1½ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 x 425 g cans of lima beans, drained and rinsed
200 ml of just boiled water
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp finely chopped dill, and more to serve
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley leaves, and more to serve
100g feta cheese, crumbled (optional)
Heat the vegetable oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and sauté gently over medium heat for 12 to 15 minutes until tender. Add the garlic and cook for a few more minutes, then add the tomatoes, sugar, oregano, both types of paprika, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add the beans to the tomato sauce with the hot water and another ½ teaspoon of salt. Cover and cook over low heat for 30 minutes.
Stir in extra virgin olive oil and herbs and cook for the last five minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning and sprinkle with herbs and crumbled feta if you feel like it, just before serving.
Pomegranate Sumac Chicken
This is an easy chicken plate recipe inspired by a Syrian meal I ate at Reem, a restaurant on the Greek island of Lesbos run by Mahmud Talli. A Syrian doctor who managed to escape the war, Mahmud found himself trapped on the island after taking refuge there, and quickly went all out to help provide services to newcomers to Lesvos by volunteering in local community cuisine and establishing its restaurant. This sticky roast chicken leg can be marinated ahead of time and simply put in the oven right before eating. If you don’t want to use chicken thighs, this also works with a whole chicken, joined in eight pieces.
Prepare and marinate 3 h 30 min
cook 35 min
8 large chicken thighs, with skin, with bone
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp tomato paste
½ teaspoon allspice, ground
2 teaspoons piments (Aleppo pepper)
1 teaspoon sumac
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
Black of pepper
Place the chicken in a large bowl and pour in all the ingredients (except olive oil) with 1½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of black pepper. Using your hands, massage it into the chicken until evenly coated, then cover and place in the fridge to marinate for at least 3 hours.
When you are ready to eat, take the chicken out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature (this will take about 20 minutes).
Preheat the oven to 200C / 390F / gas 6.
Place the chicken on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and roast for about 35 minutes, or until the chicken juices run clear when pierced in the thickest part.
Cypriot potato salad
A tangy, herb-filled potato salad, perfect to accompany grilled meats or fish. Try using kalamata olives here, but, if you can’t find them, just aim for the olives to be oily rather than pickled in these dishes. Be sure to toss the dressing while the potatoes are still hot, as they absorb the flavors better.
Preparation 10 minutes
cook 12 min
1kg of Cyprus or new potatoes
1 medium lemon unwaxed, finely zested
¼ red onion, thinly sliced
60g black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp capers, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
handful of mint leaves, finely chopped
handful of coriander, finely chopped
Black of pepper
Cut the potatoes into large pieces (5 cm). I like to leave the skins on, but remove them if you prefer.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon of salt and the potatoes to the pot and boil about 12 minutes until tender. Drain and place in a serving bowl.
Add all the remaining ingredients along with ¼ teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper.
Recipes from Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus, published by WW Norton & Company.