Q&A with Cookbook Author Yasmin Khan

Yasmin Khan - human rights activist, gifted storyteller, and cookbook author - discusses her recent cookbook, migration, and what unites us.

Yasmin Khan profile pic

W.W.Norton & Company

“Ripe Figs" (Bookshop | Amazon) by best-selling and award-winning author Yasmin Khan is a cookbook set on using food to explore the human race and its migrant nature, the way food culture moves seamlessly and evolves from one country, community and person to the next, and how there is more that unites than divides us.

Though the book is loaded with beautiful recipes that are accessible and sure to become weeknight staples (I’ve already made her Herb and Paprika Chicken on page 224 in the book three times) it’s the stories that pull you in and make this not only a favorite in the kitchen but also on your reading table.

If you’re looking for both exceptional Eastern Mediterranean recipes that work for home cooks and captivating stories about people, place, and community this is the book for you!

Her history and experiences as a human rights campaigner give Khan the unique vantage point of seeing beyond political breakdowns and social divisions to the people who, just like you and me, are doing their best, breaking bread over kitchen tables large and small, and learning together.

Khan spoke to me via Facetime in London. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.

Q: I’d like to just start with learning a little bit about your background and the evolution to becoming a cookbook author. But also, why write cookbooks the way you do with the stories, and the people. What is important about that for you personally?

I’ve always been an admirer of storytelling even when I was a little girl to when I was a human rights activist. These are stories of people struggling in war zones or as a result of human rights abuse and it’s important to tell those stories. That evolution of a love of storytelling lead to me becoming an author.

I’m lucky enough to come from a family of small-scale farmers in Iran so I always had this rich playground to play in, and anyone who has been around farms knows you have this rich experience with food. In my early 30s, when I stepped back from human rights I returned to the family farm. It was there where I realized I wanted to tell human stories through food and try to share some of the beauty and connections that exist in the world.

Q: Why use food to tell these stories?

I think the food has a very special role in culture. It not only physically sustains us but also connects us emotionally. For me when I travel and learn about food culture, it’s not just about the ingredients. I also learn about trade, economics, gender. It’s just a wonderful way to learn about one another. Food and sharing food is really great leveler. Lucky for me the Mediterranean is a pleasurable place to both eat and discuss these things.

Ripe Figs cover by Yasmin Khan

W.W. Norton & Company

Q: Migration is a major theme in this book. The scenes of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea spurred you into action. You said you wanted to know about stories of migrants who travelled through the region and what borders mean in a globalized world. What did you learn? What do borders mean to you now that you’ve spent years writing and researching this book?

I’ve learned that food culture doesn’t have borders. That Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus pantry and kitchen tables had so many similarities where political leaders would insist on difference. These manmade lines that we’ve placed on geographical area are really just that — manmade ideas. They are not set in stone. They are not concrete. I want us to connect to our common humanity.

Q: You said something in an interview with NPR, “Too often refugees and migrants are presented as if we’re in some kind of crisis around the whole issue, whereas migration is just an essential part of what it means to be human.” Can you expand on that idea?

That was probably my biggest revelation. I don’t think there is a refugee crisis as we define it today. Migration is what a species does and always has done, and if you start looking at people moving from one place to the next in that context it can be less alarming. It’s just what we’ve always done. We’ve moved because of weather, trade, empire expansions, forced migration such as slavery, we’ve moved because we’ve fallen love with people on the other side of the world. It’s just what we do. How did we create this idea of someone moving being so threatening and worrisome? I find it so fascinating.  

Q: You ask on your own website: How can we update our narrative and concepts of borders, states and identity so that people can live and move in peace and dignity? Have you come to any solutions/conclusions surrounding this?

What is going to be needed is really bold imagination. Like Martin Luther King type dreaming. People say we can’t make people legal in every country and the look at challenges but in our very recent history our concepts of what is legal and illegal has changed. Slavery is a perfect example, Women’s Rights, etcetera.

I don’t have all the answers, but I think there are great organizations and individuals working reimagining what this could look like. Throughout all of human history people have moved. Migration as a species is part of our patterns for survival.

Q: Is there any message in the book that you feel has been missed or misunderstood now that it has been out for a while?

One of the things that is important to me in the book is that while it deals with difficult subjects it’s also hopeful about how communities can connect. It’s important to me that people also see this as uplifting and inspiring.

Q: Are there any “Ripe Figs” recipes that have become personal favorites?

Just last night I made the Herb and Paprika Chicken. I just love that marinade so much, so I didn’t use it on the whole chicken; I just used it on some chicken thighs. I love the combination. I also enjoy the Cypriot Potato Salad. It’s so simple and yet flavorsome. I love the idea of adding so many fresh herbs, olive oil, and lemon to potato salad.

Q: Is there one ingredient that embodies the food of Cyprus, Turkey and Greece?

Being liberal with olive oil! You want to go in heavy with the olive oil and you want to have it at the table. That is the secret to good food and living longer.

Q: What is one thing you want to leave home cooks with when it comes to cooking this type of cuisine?

There is a section in the book called, “Setting the Table.” It’s all about how meals are served, and that means when you serve a dish - even if it’s just one dish - to always serve accompaniments alongside it. Always have bread, salad, olives, or yogurt. It elevates a simple bean stew into a much more elegant feast.

Thank you so much, Yasmin!