MOB Meets... Yasmin Khan
Yasmin Khan is a best-selling author, broadcaster, and cook. She can make better food than most of your favourite writers and write better sentences than most of your favourite cooks. In fact, there doesn't seem to be much that Yasmin isn't really, really good at. Her first two cookbooks (Zaitoun and The Saffron Tales), offered hard-hitting insights into the shifting nature of diaspora cooking without sacrificing on flavour, and it’s no surprise to learn that the likes of Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, and Yotam Ottolenghi have all considered themselves to be fans of her work.
Yasmin’s latest book, Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from the Eastern Mediterranean, is yet another string in her bow. An aromatic and evocative food tour of the Eastern Mediterranean, Ripe Figs is filled with tantalising recipes and stories of the people that Yasmin has shared meals with, and cooked alongside, during her travels. Yasmin traces the history of myriad recipes that have spread through the region from the time of Ottoman rule to the more recent influence of refugee communities. You'll find everything from a comforting spanakopita to a humble and refreshing Turkish shepherd’s salad immortalised in rather glamorous fashion on the pages of Khan's cookbook.
Borders, migration, and identity are the primary themes of Ripe Figs and it’s the combination of Yasmin’s moreish recipes with her incisive writing that makes it a must-have cookbook for your collection. It is a book, quite literally, dedicated to migrants everywhere and – considering the bleak environmental landscape we all inhabit and the ongoing refugee crisis that continues to affect the lives of people all over the world – it is an essential read for anyone interested in the politics of food. Hell, even if you’re not interested in the politics of what you're eating, it’s still a whole lot of fun and an essential for anyone who wants to cook some dazzling recipes.
Here's what happened when MOB met Yasmin Khan.
What’s your first food memory?
My first and fondest food memories come from when I was in Iran. I was born in the UK but my mum's side of the family is from Iran so we’d visit there often. My Iranian family are rice farmers but they grow just about everything. I’ll never forget the wonderful fruit trees they had. There were pomegranate trees, a kiwi orchard, persimmon trees, fig trees, greengage trees – I mean, it was just incredible. My overriding memory from when I was a little kid was being with my cousins and being left to scamper around and have fun in the fields. And, anytime we got hungry, we had this gorgeous garden of produce to eat from. Whether that was climbing a tree and getting ripe figs and dishing them out to each other or plucking fresh satsumas and apricots. It all sounds a bit like a fairy tale and magical, but it was true.
Where did the inspiration for Ripe Figs come from?
Well, it came from a novel actually. I read Exit West by Mohsin Hamad a few years back, and it really got me thinking. The refugee crisis was already making the headlines with all of the stories that were happening in Syria but Hamad’s writing made me think about it much more deeply. That was a major influence and then the other side of it is that I live in Hackney, just off Green Lanes, and it’s no coincidence that the food you can find in that area is also the food that's in this new book. It's Turkish and Cypriot and it used to be a Greek community; the corner shops here are filled with incredible produce and ingredients like pomegranate molasses and tahini and fresh herbs. I've got all that just two minutes from my house and I’m so used to being surrounded by the enticing smells of kebabs or the incredible bakeries and baklava shops. I think the idea for Ripe Figs came from being inspired to write about all the incredible produce and ingredients that were in my neighbourhood along with that bigger story of what was happening, politically, in the Eastern Mediterranean.
You talk about it as a cookbook that’s about the resilience of the human spirit. Can you expand on that a little?
I think, at the moment in the world, it's really easy to feel a bit hopeless and negative about the issues that we face as a global community. But what I found when I was travelling about the Eastern Mediterranean region is that there is immense hope to be found in how ordinary human beings can support each other during times of crisis. I saw it in all the volunteer-led initiatives that were helping refugees and migrants but I feel like, in the last year, we've seen it so much here as well with COVID and all the mutual aid groups and all the initiatives about cooking for vulnerable people. There's enough doom and gloom in the world and yes, it's a bit of a heavy topic, but one of the things I really wanted to do with this book was to show that when people get together, we can support each other and find solutions to problems that governments can’t. That's what I think I meant about the human spirit. I’m trying to showcase the stories that show that humans can help each other; we've got the capacity to endure the most terrible challenges and still come through them. I think it's always worth remembering that, whatever we're going through at a particular time, things do change.
You mentioned travelling to the region and seeing that all first-hand. How important is travel for broadening one’s horizons? Is that something you worry isn't going to come back?
It's an interesting question, isn't it? As a travel writer, I've obviously thought about that a lot. I already question, with the climate crisis looming, whether people are still going to be travelling like how we did in 20 years' time. And honestly? Probably not. But I do still think travel is incredibly important and I can't see it going away entirely after the pandemic. It might just be that we travel in different ways. What I love about travel is that it opens you up to new ideas and different ways of doing things. One of the main things you learn when you travel the world is that we're not all homogenous – there's so many different cultures and languages and different approaches to life and seeing that in-person is a great way of challenging stereotypes. I think that's really important and, on a personal level, travel enables you to come out of your particular headspace. By literally removing yourself from your everyday routines you can get influenced by new ideas or enthused with more creativity. It just renews you a bit.
When it comes to stereotypes, what’s something that most people get wrong about Eastern Mediterranean cooking?
They think it's all kebabs! I get that reaction so much with Turkish food. I've got a friend who's vegan and he's like 'I'm not going to be able to enjoy the recipes in your book, am I? It's all going to be kebabs," and I have to tell him, “no, that's not true at all”. One of the best things about Turkey, and that part of the world in general, is that the soil is so fertile and the sun shines for so many months of the year that it means you can grow pretty much anything there. As a result, there are so many vegetable-based dishes and plant-based dishes which are absolutely incredible. Some of my fondest food memories in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus revolve around vegan or plant-based food. I remember getting off a bus at the central bus station in Nicosia in Cyprus one time and there was a little café on the corner that was really busy. I went and sat down and I ordered what everyone else was ordering which was this gorgeous black-eyed bean stew with wild greens. It was just so flavoursome and everyone was eating it with bread and olives and chopped tomatoes, and I think that belief that the region is all about meat is the biggest misconception. When I think of the Eastern Mediterranean, I think of aubergines and ripe tomatoes and gorgeous peppers. That's what you see the most at the table.
Bread is also a big part of the culture in that part of the world. What’s your favourite bread?
God, that’s such a difficult question. Bread is just one of the most delicious things in the world but I am going to have to go for pitta bread. For one, I think it's really versatile – because it’s great on its own but you can fill the little pockets to make a sandwich and you can even use it as a utensil and sweep it through some hummus. It's also really lovely cut into strips and added to Middle Eastern salads like fattoush. It’s got to get my vote for that versatility.
What do you think the most underrated ingredient is?
I'm going to be controversial here and say olive oil. I think that, over here in the UK, we don't see olive oil as an ingredient and we don't understand how much olive oil can add to a dish. There's so many different flavours of olive oil and the quality of olive oil can really affect a dish. In the Eastern-Med – and all across the Middle East, to be honest – olive oil is used more like a seasoning. It's almost like the sriracha of that region because it's what you drizzle on everything and anyone living there will always make sure to have several bottles of olive oil in the kitchen that range from the one that you use for dressing to the one that you use for cooking to the one that you might use for baking. Personally, I always bring olive oil to the table along with salt and pepper. For many of the dishes that I cook, what you actually need at the end of them, to bring them to life, is this gorgeous flourish of olive oil. It's transformative. Even a really mediocre bottle of olive oil can change the flavour of a boring dish.
Conversely, what do you think the most overrated ingredient is?
I think it's cream. I think adding cream to something is a really lazy way to try and make a dish taste good. I didn't grow up with cream being part of a culinary tradition that I ate at home so I find that it's cloying and, more often than not, you don't need it. You can usually get better results in terms of creaminess by adding yoghurt or, again, using a good olive oil. Cream is just so overpowering and I don't ever really get anything from it.
What’s the one dish that you think everyone should be able to cook?
I think poached eggs is something that I feel a lot of people are still a little scared of for some reason but being able to poach an egg properly is really an important cooking skill. Mainly because they’re just so great. There's a few things you have to know about poaching an egg. One, the eggs have to be as fresh as possible. If you're poaching eggs, you want to buy them fresh and keep them in the fridge. And two, you always need to add a good amount of salt and a good amount of acid to the water. I often use vinegar but you can use lemon juice as well. Once you do those things, you pretty much can’t go wrong.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
I tend to listen to a lot of reggae and a lot of dub when I cook, so I'm going to go for one of my favourite songs to listen to when I’m bopping around in the kitchen to which is 'Here I Come' by Barrington Levy.