Last Updated on June 5, 2021
Recipes and stories from the Eastern Mediterranean
Ripe Figs is a book about resilience as much as recipes. Yasmin Khan has travelled around the Eastern Mediterranean in search of stories about food from refugees who have landed on its shores. While exploring their cuisine and the dishes they have brought with them in their hearts and recreate in their new environment, Khan considers the question of borders, migration, loss, and the role that food plays in helping people negotiate these life-changing events. Alongside, are the losses that Khan herself was facing during the years of research. She has written movingly about the three miscarriages she suffered, the first just as she should have been celebrating the signing of the contract for Ripe Figs. This gives the book even more poignancy and amplifies the ways in which lives are disrupted and changed by events outside of our control.
Khan, born in the UK to Pakistani and Iranian parents, has worked for a decade as a human rights campaigner and is no stranger to the challenges facing the oppressed and displaced. Ripe Figs is her third cookbook. The Saffron Tales is her book on Iranian cooking while Zaitoun showcases Palestinian cuisine. In Ripe Figs, she has explored the influences on the cuisine of Turkey, Cyprus and Greece from the Ottoman period to the influence of the refugees fleeing to those countries today. The book is illustrated with photographs by Matt Russell who is equally skilled in capturing the beauty of landscapes, food markets and Khan’s dishes.
In the introduction to Ripe Figs, Khan writes about the migrant crisis – over 5 million people have migrated in the past 5 years – which is seeing levels not experienced since WWll and is set to continue as climate change, wars and economic challenges exacerbate the lives of people in certain parts of the world.
Khan’s work as a human rights campaigner, author and cookbook writer all contribute to the richness of Ripe Figs. She writes eloquently, weaving in politics, humanity, memory and meaning, food as the symbol of loss and the source of solace. Her writing is so honest and revealing of her own vulnerability. While researching Ripe Figs, she plans to spend her time in Athens interviewing activists running refugee kitchens and the like, yet finds herself suffering the emotional and hormonal sequelae of the miscarriage that occurred a mere two weeks before. Even then she reminds herself that her situation is more fortunate than the refugees she has come to meet.
When it came to trying out some of the tempting recipes, I became over-excited by the joy of cooking for a few friends who were due to gather in my garden in the sunshine. We have been in short supply of opportunities to host friends, as well as sunny weather, and the combination turned my head. Thus, I ended up making ten dishes from Ripe Figs. Of course, it was far, far too much food. So much so that we only managed half the dishes at lunch and, the daylight remaining until late these days, we ate the second half in the evening. I love days like that. I have been so moved by this book that I brought it out to show around to the guests, several copies are now on order.
We began with a selection of mezze accompanied by cornbread. The spiced cornbread with feta (misir ekmegi) was a cinch to make – a simple measuring out of dry and wet ingredients, mixing them together and then crumbling in some feta, chopped spring onion and parsley. I tipped the mixture into a cast iron pan and into the oven. It looked most impressive coming to the table just like that, all fragrant and golden. I cut wedges to pass around. The guests were intrigued by the feta in the bread. I liked the slightly crunchy texture from the polenta and the spicy notes from the paprika. It tasted as good the following day.
I love a mezze selection and tend to order too many small dishes when I eat in Mediterranean or Levantine restaurants. I also tend to prepare too many. Yet, I wondered as I chopped my way through a table full of veg, can there ever be too much when these sorts of dishes seem to taste even better as leftovers after a day or two? Stuffed roast aubergines (imam bayildi) is a well-known aubergine dish that looks and tastes rich and sumptuous. It means the Imam fainted (presumably because the dish was so lovely) and although no one passed out at my table, the guests did tuck in with gusto. Khan is not re-inventing the wheel with her recipes and most of these mezze are much-loved staples around the Mediterranean. I do like her relaxed approach to her recipes – several ingredients are optional – and she encourages the home cook to relax too.
I was intrigued by the Afghan spiced pumpkin (borani kadoo) partly because butternut (which I substituted for pumpkin) is one of my all-time favourite vegetables but also because I have made lots of different boranis and thus far only really like the one made with spinach. This one was very interesting due to the addition of lots of chopped ginger and an array of spices which gave it a wonderful flavour. The butternut roasted while I made the tomato sauce with ripe tomatoes, garlic, ginger and jalapeño chilli. The butternut and the sauce are mixed together and served with a garlicky yoghurt sauce. Khan tells us that Afghans like spicy food but she has toned down the heat here to suit her own preferred taste.
A simple Turkish shepherd’s salad (çoban salatasi) with cucumber and ripe tomatoes, green pepper and red onion dressed with olive oil and lemon juice added crunch and even more healthy veg to the table. Use your best bottle of extra virgin olive oil to dress these simple salads as the key to their success is the quality of the ingredients. Insipid tomatoes and mediocre oil does not make a great salad.
Courgette and feta fritters is a dish worthy of the required grating and mixing. I don’t usually make fritters because I try to avoid frying foods but on this occasion, I made an exception and I am pleased I did. These were light, citrusy from the lemon zest, herby and very moreish in the way that you think you have made too many, but you haven’t because the whole lot disappear in minutes.
The smoky butter beans (gigantes plaki) were very popular – I served it at room temperature the first day and it was even better the second day as a leftover when I warmed it up and crumbled over feta cheese as Khan suggests as an option. I liked the addition of dill which I used liberally. I use the jarred beans which I find far superior to the tinned variety. Although they are pricier, there is no comparison with the quality. This is a great dish as a vegetarian main especially if served along with the orzo rice and hortas.
The orzo rice (sehriyeli pilav) was one of those dishes that brought great happiness to my table. ‘You made the rice!’ my son exclaimed. I knew exactly what he meant. For years we bought takeaways from a neighbourhood Turkish ocakbasi. Whenever we did so the children would ask for extra rice to be added to the order. It was excellent. It is some time since we have been to this grill house but we all recall the rice. When I read the recipe, which calls for orzo pasta and Turkish rice called Baldo, I realised I was on to a new discovery. Khan mentions basmati as an alternative but to be honest get Baldo if you can. I, fortunately, live a few minutes walk from a Turkish shop and I knew they must sell it. I donned a mask – I only buy online these days but this was a special project – and found Baldo gracing the shelves of the grain aisle. I now know why our takeaway rice was so delicious. First of all, it has lots of butter, secondly, it has toasted orzo pasta which has become golden in the sizzling butter before the Baldo rice is added to steam. Thank you, Yasmin!
I served this with the Greek greens (horta) – which, as any traveller to Greece will know, is a plate of cooked fresh greens anointed with olive oil and lemon juice. So simple, so healthy, so delicious. When my online order arrived with bags full of chard, kale, spinach and coriander, my husband asked if I had meant to order such a mountain of greens. I assured him it would cook down to just the right amount. I will certainly be making this again.
Pomegranate and sumac chicken involved a marinade of pomegranate molasses, sumac, allspice, garlic, tomato purée and paprika. This was yet another successful dish and one for repeating. Whenever I have time to plan, I marinate chicken overnight which intensifies the flavours. I use a lot of pomegranate molasses in my cooking and encourage you to try it if you have not done so yet. It has a quite wonderful tangy and sweet flavour that adds great vibrancy to whatever other ingredients it is added. The introduction to the recipe informed me that Khan had eaten a version of this dish on the island of Lesvos where so many refugees have become trapped, unable to progress on into Europe. One of these refugees is a Syrian doctor, Mahmud Talli, who having escaped the war is now stuck on the island where he runs a restaurant called Reem feeding refugees, volunteers and tourists. He also volunteers at a community centre called One Happy Family where Khan met refugees preparing food for lunch, a queue of some 600 people had gathered on that particular day. While we enjoy this dish in complete safety in my garden, I think about the trauma of those who may be eating this same dish and returning after their meal to the horrific conditions of the refugee camps.
Finally, there was cake. I had wanted to make Khan’s meringue roulade but as I almost always make pavlova for dessert when I entertain, I thought I would challenge myself. Not that Khan’s citrus cake was difficult. In fact, because everything is beaten together at once, it is very easy indeed. I think if I make it again, I might beat some air into the eggs as I prefer my cakes a little lighter in texture, but it certainly tasted good and was even better the second day. The icing had us divided. I particularly like the cream cheese frosting I make on a carrot cake which has similar ingredients. This cake had the addition of yoghurt in the icing which gave it a yoghurty tang. My guests all commented on how much they liked it, so I bow to popular preference. It is a very pretty cake to make for dessert – or tea – and I served it with strawberries on the side. Sitting in the garden on a beautiful sunny day with citrus cake and fruit was joyful.
Ripe Figs is a wonderful addition to my already copious collection of cookbooks. I know I will return to it repeatedly and there are many more recipes I still want to try. It is a moving and thought-provoking cookbook; the essays which Khan has included make for essential reading. I am buying copies for friends which I only ever do when I really like a book. This is one of those.
Turkish cornbread with feta cheese
- 5 tbsp olive oil
- 220 grams fine cornmeal
- 160 grams plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 11/2 tsp cumin seeds toasted and ground
- 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- 240 ml whole milk
- 180 grams natural yoghurt
- 2 large eggs lightly beaten
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 3 spring onions finely chopped
- 125 grams feta cheese roughly crumbled
- large handful parsley finely chopped
- salt and white pepper
Preheat your oven to 200C/fan 180 C/ gas 6.
Using extra olive oil, generously oil a medium (22cm) cast-iron, ovenproof frying pan or a 23 cm round baking tin.
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. These are the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, bicarb, cumin, paprika, sugar as well as 1.5 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 teaspoon on white pepper.
Whisk together the wet ingredients in a second bowl - milk, yoghurt, eggs, olive oil and lemon juice.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix it all together well. Then fold in the spring onions, feta and herbs.
Tip the batter into your oiled pan or tin. Bake for 30 -35 minutes, or until golden brown.
Leave to cool in the pan or tin for 15 minutes before serving.
You can buy Ripe Figs from various online sellers including Waterstones and Amazon or from the Author’s own site
Looking for more recipe books to consider? For similar mezze style dishes do check out my review of Chasing Smoke with Honey – a collection of recipes from the Levant