Stunningly beautiful and profoundly political, Ripe Figs by Yasmin Khan is a cookbook to savour – and we have three recipes to share here.
Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. What comes to mind when you hear these words? Quite possibly, you remember idyllic holidays where you spent the days swimming in crystalline seas under a bright blue sky, and the evenings devouring dishes where certain ingredients – from aubergine to sour cherries, pomegranate molasses to halloumi, lamb to pistachios – reigned supreme.
As a food writer, Yasmin Khan is deeply interested in the culinary traditions of these countries. In her new cookbook Ripe Figs: Recipes And Stories From The Eastern Mediterranean, she writes lyrically about the “olive groves and citrus trees” of the region, recalling “mezze-laden tables filled with crisp rings of calamari and cigarillos of rice-stuffed vine leaves, all washed down with fiery anise spirits that make you cough and splutter”.
But as a former charity staffer who spent a decade working on human rights campaigns with a focus on the Middle East, Khan also sees food through a political lens. She grew up in Birmingham, the child of a Pakistani father and Iranian mother, and her first cookbook – 2016’s The Saffron Tales – was as concerned with capturing the lives of people in modern Iran as it was with passing on their recipes.
Khan’s second cookbook, the critically acclaimed Zaitoun, was an ode to Palestinian cuisine and a semi-memoir of Khan’s travels through Palestinian kitchens in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. So it’s no surprise that there is a strong political message underpinning Ripe Figs, which is as much a work of “culinary anthropology” – Khan’s term – as anything she has written before.
The recipes in Ripe Figs may well remind you of treasured travel memories, but Khan’s purpose in writing the cookbook was not to help people in the UK recreate their favourite holiday dishes. Instead, as the refugee crisis unfolded in the eastern Mediterranean, she realised she wanted to create a book that explored how migration has long shaped cultures – including food cultures – for the better.
Consequently, Ripe Figs is filled with the stories – and recipes – of refugees in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as those of people whose families have lived in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey for generations.
Humans have always travelled, Khan observes, and it’s only relatively recently that we have started to move “for pleasure, for recreation, for holidays. But one form of travel has always stayed constant throughout time: the travel necessary for our protection and safety.”
While researching the book, Khan spent time at Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, preparing meals with and for people from Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and everywhere in between. She visited Kurdish kitchens in Istanbul. She talked with Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots in northern Cyprus, learning more about how the legacy of British colonialism is still felt on the island today.
As a result, Ripe Figs is many things, as well as a collection of gorgeous sunshine-on-a-plate recipes. It’s an ode to eastern Mediterranean holidays that Khan will never forget; a deep dive into the complex histories of the region; a reminder of the ongoing refugee crisis; and a tribute to the human ability to find joy in food in the most challenging circumstances.
“It’s a book about the recipes that travel with us on the great journeys our species have always taken, and how these recipes comfort us and nourish us through times of great celebration or terrible calamity,” Khan writes. “But most of all, I think, it’s a book about the resilience of the human spirit.”
Read on for three recipes from Ripe Figs that you’ll want to make again and again.
Garlicky aubergine salad (yoğurtlu patlıcan salatası)
Yasmin says: “Sitting somewhere between salad, side dish and dip, this is one of those dishes that demonstrates that the best recipes are sometimes the simplest, and celebrates one of the region’s favourite ingredients: the mighty aubergine.
“The flavours improve over time, so it’s a good mezze to make ahead. I recommend scooping up the sweet aubergine with warm flatbreads, or serving it alongside grilled meats, roasted vegetables or simmered beans.”
Serves 4 as part of a mezze, or as a side dish
- 3 large aubergines (total weight about 1kg)
- 245g full-fat Greek-style yogurt
- 1 fat garlic clove, minced
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley leaves, plus more to serve
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
- salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 220°C/fan 200°C/Gas 7.
Pierce each aubergine with a fork all over, then place on a baking tray and roast for 1 hour, or until completely soft. You want the aubergines to completely collapse in on themselves and for the skins to be charred.
Remove the aubergines from the oven, slice them in half with a knife and leave to cool.
Once they are completely cold, scoop out the aubergine flesh with a spoon.
Discard the aubergine skins and roughly chop any big pieces of aubergine pulp. Place this in a serving bowl and add the yogurt, garlic, parsley, ¾ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon black pepper and the extra-virgin olive oil. Stir well with a fork to get everything evenly combined and then taste to adjust the seasoning (I often add a bit more salt at this stage, as I think the aubergines benefit from it).
Cover with a plate or cling film and pop it in the refrigerator, leaving it to sit for at least 1 hour before serving.
Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and a smattering of chopped parsley.
Yasmin says: “This is the perfect appetiser in my eyes: sweet, salty, crunchy, fried. Rectangles of halloumi are dusted in semolina or polenta, sautéed until crisp, drizzled with a warm, thyme-infused honey and topped with crunchy pomegranate seeds.
“This recipe is inspired by a dish I kept returning to at the Loxandra restaurant in Nicosia, Cyprus and is one of the most popular mezze dishes that I make for my friends at home. Let’s be honest, you can never go wrong with fried cheese. Enjoy!”
Serves 4 as part of a mezze
- 300g halloumi cheese
- 1 medium egg
- 4 tbsp fine semolina or polenta
- 3 tbsp sunflower oil
- 2 tbsp runny honey
- 1 tsp finely chopped thyme leaves
- couple of handfuls of rocket leaves
- 4–5 fresh figs, quartered (optional)
- 3 tbsp pomegranate seeds
- black pepper
Cut the halloumi into 8 thick slices.
Beat the egg in a small bowl and lay the semolina or polenta out on a plate. Dip the halloumi slices in the beaten egg, then roll them in the semolina or polenta so they have a crust around them.
Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan until it is hot, then fry the halloumi pieces for a few minutes on each side until they are golden brown. Place on some kitchen paper to soak up any excess oil.
Meanwhile, heat the honey in a small saucepan with the thyme.
Now assemble the dish. Place the rocket on a serving plate and arrange the halloumi on top, nestling the figs around, if using.
Drizzle a little of the hot honey over each slice of halloumi. Finish with a smattering of pomegranate seeds and grind over some black pepper.
Greek tomato meatballs (soutzoukakia)
Yasmin says: “In Greece, these spiced meatballs are said to have originated from the Greeks of ancient Smyrna, the city now known as Izmir, on the Anatolian coast of Turkey. There are reportedly almost 250 types of meatball recipe in Turkey, so it’s not surprising that Greeks who were living in that region took on some of its most famous culinary influences.
“Whatever the origins, these are comfort food of the highest order. You can serve them as part of a mezze, with warm flatbreads, or for a more substantial main course, with steamed orzo or mash and a green salad.”
For the tomato sauce:
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 400g can of chopped plum tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- 150ml just-boiled water
- ½ tsp dried thyme
- pinch of ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp sweet paprika
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp sugar
- salt and black pepper
For the meatballs:
- 300g minced lamb or pork
- 300g minced beef
- 70g breadcrumbs
- large handful of parsley leaves, finely chopped, plus more to serve
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ½ medium onion, grated
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- ¾ tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp sweet paprika
- light olive oil, for the tray and the meatballs
- extra-virgin olive oil, to serve
Begin by preparing the tomato sauce. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan, add the onion and gently fry over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic and fry for another few minutes.
Add the rest of the ingredients with ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper, stir well, cover and leave to simmer for 20 minutes.
Place all the ingredients for the meatballs (except the oils) in a large bowl, season with 1 ½ teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper and mix together with your hands.
Lightly oil a large baking tray, roll the meat into about 20 balls and transfer to the tray.
Preheat the oven to 210°C/fan 190°C/Gas 7. Brush the meatballs with a little more light olive oil, then pop them in the oven and cook for 10–12 minutes, turning once, until browned.
Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce and simmer for 15 minutes so the meat absorbs the flavours of the sauce.
Just before serving, sprinkle with chopped parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Ripe Figs: Recipes From The Eastern Mediterranean by Yasmin Khan (£26, Bloomsbury Publishing) is out now
Photography: Matt Russell
Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.