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Yasmin Khan's Cookbook Tells The Story Of Pieces Of Home Left Behind


For all migrants, being uprooted from one's homeland is an unsettling experience, writes Yasmin Khan in her new cookbook "Ripe Figs: Recipes And Stories From Turkey, Greece And Cyprus." It is a book about food, yes, but also about the pieces of home refugees and travelers bring with them after leaving so much behind. Yasmin Khan joins us now from London. Welcome to the program.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. This is my favorite cuisine. I mean, literally, this is a wonderful part of the world. And everything in this book I want to eat. Talk me through one of the recipes. I'm leafing through it right now. I'm seeing Turkish bride soup and zucchini and feta fritters and just all this beautiful stuff made with pomegranate syrup.

KHAN: I'm a home cook. So the recipes in this book reflect my style of cooking, which is being able to whip up delicious food when you, perhaps, just have 30 minutes and bring a lot of flavor to the table. So there are some beautiful recipes for things like pomegranate and sumac marinated roast chickens, hot yogurt and spinach soups. There's beautiful pear, apricot and rosewater puddings, a real selection of summery dishes, really - perfect for this time of year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about why this particular part of the world was so enticing to you to want to, you know, detail in this book?

KHAN: Well, I first traveled to Turkey over 30 years ago and became absolutely enamored with its cuisine. And I think it's a region where just the food brings a smile to one's face because it just reminds so many of us of, you know, summer vacations, you know, whether it's, like, sitting on an idyllic Greek island, you know, eating some delicious, ripe figs. The region also is just a wonderful way of exploring some wider issues that have kind of come to the forefront, I think, of all of our minds in recent years. That is borders and migration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you trace the path of how flavors and food came to this region over time, including recent times with the refugees who risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

KHAN: That's right. What I try and do in my cookbooks is to kind of cook in people's homes on my travels. And while we're cooking together, I kind of learn about the stories that bring people, not only the dishes that they're making, but their history.

The story that stands out the most to me is when I was in Lesbos, home to some of Europe's most notorious refugee camps. And I want to tell you the story of this incredible couple called Nikos (ph) and Katerina (ph). Nikos was a fisherman, local Greek guy. And his wife Katerina ran the fish restaurant accompanying it. And one day, he was out to sea in the evening, I should say. And he saw a boat approaching land. And on it were some people who looked quite, you know, bedraggled, a bit scared. And he asked them, you know, who were they? And were they OK? And they told him that they were from Syria. They were fleeing the civil war there. And so we immediately brought them to shore, went home, got some food, got some blankets for them.

And that one incident sparked something in Nikos and Katerina to ultimately change their restaurant into a nonprofit. And every day, twice a day, they serve free food, free meals to refugees in the nearby camps, served on white linen tablecloths with proper cutlery, beautiful glassware. And the whole premise behind their work was to try and share food in a way that conveys dignity, that invites people to their table, and that kind of brings back this sense of self-worth to people who have lost so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, food is that piece of home when home is no longer there. And I think this is something your family also has experience with.

KHAN: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I'm a Londoner born and bred. But, you know, my parents are economic migrants to the U.K. And, you know, I have other family members who've, you know, had much different, more difficult journey. You know, we've got family from Iran. So I've had family members who've claimed asylum in the U.K., other family members who've had to pay people smugglers to carry them over the hills of Turkey because their lives are in danger. So, you know, I know firsthand the reason why people move. And I think, too often, refugees and migrants are presented as if we're in kind of some kind of crisis around the whole issue, whereas migration is just an essential part of what it means to be human.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This book was a journey, you know, literal as well as sort of, I guess, figurative. I mean, what did you learn after, you know, taking the time to do this?

KHAN: No matter what we endure as humans, I think it's so magical that we can still find happiness in the smell of warm bread baking in an oven, a scoop of pistachio ice cream on a hot summer's day or a bowl of roasted pumpkin soup eaten by a roaring fire. No matter what we go through, we can always find hope. And we can always look to a better time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Yasmin Khan, author of the new cookbook "Ripe Figs." Thank you very much.

KHAN: Thanks, Lulu. It was a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.