Yasmin Khan’s cookbooks are more than just cookbooks. Yes, the recipes are exceptional, and the photography is stunning. But Khan’s experience as a journalist and human rights advocate gives her a distinctive lens as a cookbook author: She uses food to connect her readers to the places she writes about. Ripe Figs, her latest book, is organized into sections like soups, salads, mains, but there are also sections for different regions. Each tells personal stories of the people who reside there. She touches on the intersections of politics, history, culture, and the food that accompanies every part of life, be it celebratory or catastrophic. Khan herself puts it best in her dedication: “It’s a book about the resilience of the human spirit.”
Her first and second books focused on Persian and Palestinian food and stories, respectively, and this, her third, covers the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean migratory corridor: Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. “Migration food symbolizes more than raw ingredients; it represents connections, family ancestry, a sense of safety,” says Khan. As people move, recipes evolve based on what’s available, and with creativity and resourcefulness, we maintain deeply meaningful connections to our cultures through food.
Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus
If you’re new to the flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, you’ll want to stock up on some pantry ingredients to cook up all the delights in this book. Khan suggests a few essentials to get you started: First, pomegranate molasses—a sweet and sour syrup used in dressing, stews, and desserts. Some aromatics, like sweet paprika and peppery oregano. Sumac is ground from tart, dried berries and provides the astringency and sharpness of vinegar or citrus juice in powder form. Pul biber, also known as Aleppo pepper, gives a mild, fruity, almost sweet heat. “If you have that you can make most of the recipes in the cookbook,” says Khan. But she also encourages experimentations and riffing. “I think of recipes as blueprints, and good recipes are adaptable.” She shared three recipes to enjoy, adapt, and add to your own food story.
“In my many years of eating stuffed grape leaves, this Cypriot version made with plum tomatoes and spearmint may be my favorite. Don’t be put off by the physical task of stuffing and rolling, as these are relatively straightforward to make and the process has a meditative quality too, so I recommend making a batch during times of stress. (I made them repeatedly in the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, but that’s another story.) I didn’t grow up learning how to make stuffed grape leaves, so used to find them a bit intimidating. Thankfully, during the course of writing this book, I think I’ve finally cracked it. The tricks are to not overfill the leaves, to roll them tightly, and to approach each one with utter confidence.
“I was shown how to make these with yoga teacher Çizge Yalkın and her grandmother Nahide Köșkeroǧlu; we stuffed half the mixture into zucchini flowers and, if you ever get the opportunity to use some, I highly recommend it. Otherwise, you can find brined grape leaves in just about any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean store. This recipe makes 30 to 35 dolma depending on the size of the leaves and I like to serve it with thick plain yogurt on the side. The dolma keep well in the refrigerator for about three days, in a covered container. I often warm them up in a saucepan with a drop of water, to take the chill off them if they’ve been refrigerated.” —Khan
“This is an easy chicken sheet pan recipe inspired by a meal I ate at Reem, a restaurant on the Greek island of Lesvos run by Mahmud Talli. Mahmud is a powerhouse of energy and, when I met him, he was splitting his time between volunteering at a local community center and running this restaurant. A Syrian doctor who managed to escape the war, Mahmud found himself trapped on the island after seeking refuge there, and soon put all his efforts into helping to provide services for new arrivals to Lesvos. Reem serves traditional Syrian food to hungry tourists, volunteers, locals, and refugees alike and this was one of my favorite dishes on the menu, a sticky roasted leg of chicken that can be marinated ahead of time and just popped into the oven shortly before eating. If you don’t want to use chicken thighs, this also works with a whole chicken, jointed into eight pieces.” —Khan
“If, like me, you relish food that you can eat with your hands, you’ll take great pleasure in assembling and eating these salad wraps. Originating from the southeast of Turkey, where pomegranate molasses is used to add a sweet-and-sour piquancy to food, this dish can be served from a large salad bowl, or you can nestle scoops of it inside lettuce leaves which, in my opinion, brings a bit of glamour to the party. Traditionally a hot pepper paste known as biber salçası is added to kısır; you can find it in Turkish grocery stores or online. It isn’t strictly essential, though, and you can always adjust the heat levels to your taste with chile flakes. Serve as part of a mezze spread or alongside grilled meats or fish.” —Khan
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