The eastern Mediterranean has for millennia been a crossroad of influences from East and West, especially in the various ethnic cuisines of the region. Ripe Figs by Yasmin Khan features recipes and stories from Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. The book celebrates the region and its cuisine while also acknowledging the plight of refugees and migrants who continue to bring even more diversity into the area.
Khan, originally from Iran, moved with her family to the UK, and recalls in the book’s introduction a family vacation to Izmir (Smyrna) which stuck in her memory for many reasons, but especially the food. As an adult, she moved to Northeast London where the Greek, Cypriot, and Turkish immigrant communities have settled, bringing with them the flavors of the East Mediterranean and allowing Khan to continue her “love affair” with the region.
On a trip to Athens, Khan enjoys a ripe fig, noting that “a ripe fig always reminds me of Iran, of my grandparents’ farm, of the fig tree on the dirt path that led to their house, of hot summer days with my cousins running around the farm…” The connection between food and memory is clear and will undoubtedly spark food memories for readers regardless of ethnic background. Khan’s book is more personal than the average travel guide as she shares her journey with us and the foods she enjoyed along the way. She writes, “so I sit on this balcony… eating as many figs as I can. Because ripe figs remind me of my childhood, of my home, of my community, of being loved. Ripe figs remind me of feeling safe.”
The book includes 80 recipes many of which will be familiar to Greek and Cypriot readers, and others perhaps not so familiar. The focus of the book is on vegetables and features a handy menu ideas section and a dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegan recipe index. The chapter on breakfast explains the difference between Greek, Turkish, and Cypriot breakfasts: “The Greeks traditionally eat quite lightly and are likely to have something simple and on the go… Turks, on the other hand, are known to go all-out with the infamous Turkish breakfast… the Cypriots… breakfast somewhere in the middle.”
Among the recipes included in the book for breakfast are griddled fruits, yogurt, and honey, jams to spread on toast, and sweet tahini swirls, also known as tahinopita. Breads and grains, mezze, light meals and sides, salads, soups, mains, and desserts make up the remaining chapters of this easy-to-read book.
Khan’s visits with organizations helping refugees and migrants are also recounted in Ripe Figs. Her stops include Athens, Ikaria, Lesvos, Constantinople, and Nicosia, and she reflects on what the world would be like without borders in the divided capital of Cyprus. She recalls the history of the island nation and the various empires and occupations that left their mark not only on the land, but on the food culture as well. Khan notes the “rich tapestry of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients” in Cypriot cuisine and also the particular “Cypriot culinary specialties,” such as the “world-renowned Cypriot potato, a product of the island’s rich red soil, which makes the best fries you will ever eat,” and, of course, halloumi.
Khan writes in her introduction that she hopes her book and the recipes will “start a conversation” about the issues facing the eastern Mediterranean region, adding that “there is no better place to talk than at the dinner table.”
Ripe Figs by Yasmin Khan is available online and in bookstores.