Culinary solidarity and borderless journeys in 'Ripe Figs'

Culinary solidarity and borderless journeys in 'Ripe Figs'
5 min read
28 April, 2021
Book Club: Yasmin Khan, in her latest gastronomic adventure, unravels how the ongoing migrant crisis has further blurred the culinary boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, with food surmounting political divisions.
Food, the world's true love language [Getty]
Months ago, EU member state Cyprus criticised the Turkish government for infringing the EU-Turkey Agreement on the migration crisis proposed in 2016. By opening new irregular migrant routes from Turkey to the EU, Cyprus  in a divisive political milieu – is stuck in a sudden surge of asylum seekers illegally entering its petite shores.

What should be an escape route to people fleeing from their countries trapped in conflict, Cyprus finds it difficult to grapple with daily.

The number remains four times higher than any average state in the EU and according to the Cypriot government, the island is "disproportionately burdened".  

But "what to do when millions of people turn up in your country and ask if they can stay, have shelter, work? How do we co-exist in a world where artificial borders are now more rigid than ever?" asks British-Iranian Pakistani author Yasmin Khan in her latest recipe collection, Ripe Figs.

An activist take on culinary entities, the book gently moves into the modern refugee crisis exploring people, places and dazzling portions served on a plate from interesting pantry spaces.

  An activist take on culinary entities, the book gently moves into the modern refugee crisis exploring people, places and dazzling portions served on a plate from interesting pantry spaces  
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Yasmin, previously trained in law, has been a human rights campaigner for nearly a decade and is also a renowned broadcaster in the UK.

She examines the rich gastronomic heritage of Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, seated on the East Mediterranean waters, and a major gas resource hotspot ever since natural gases were discovered in Cyprus in 2011.

In spite of the many alliances in economic investments, there have still been severe disputes between and within the individual nations. Looming large are violent interventions or worse, war which not only threatens the citizens residing in the territories, but also those identified as 'refugees' from as far as the Levant.

Even if things seem murky from this part of a doomed world, Yasmin finds that there is ultimately not much separating the two when it comes to the kitchen.

Steeped in aroma, texture and variations of the grainy breads, fresh salads, warm soups, stews, olive oil infused dips, side dishes, fruity fig-sweet desserts, they all only differ by language. After all, hunger is universal.

We could be tolerant as humans if we are more accepting of others without judgement, perhaps even wonder in awe at it because it is exactly what the book does with reverent ardour.

More than just a compendium of recipes stacked against photographs alluring the eye, the 400 or so paged cookbook accentuates the usage of common ingredients – yoghurt, chickpeas and couscous known to be perfected and savoured in the region.

  The book in its most down to earth form helps the reader witness a celebrative simmering of ethno-cultural harmony beneath the political scenario making 'monsters of each other'  

As you turn the pages, further revelations are emotional – hurt, concern, anger, grief all which adds to the author's purpose of traversing three nations that share the same Mediterranean sunshine.

Whether by ferry or feet, Yasmin blurs the borderlines of a tri-cultural landscape abundant with islands and countryside nourishment, spending time with the locals who divulge in their cooking knowledge which is an evocative intersection leading us all the way up Syria to Afghanistan.

Yet, the lives of these outsiders are of little to no importance. With thousands of refugees having to wait in limbo for residence permits, the camps they are put in are congested, while a sense of displacement takes after the 'unliveable' desperate conditions awaiting them.

On most days, there are many who regret leaving their homes. While some were left with no choice. "I had to leave Iran because of my dreams," tells young Mozhdeh to Yasmin with a smile. "They won't come true in Iran, because I'm Afghan and I am so of the lowest importance for Iranian people."

Having reached Europe, migrants predominantly from Muslim countries like Mozhdeh realise the journey to a better life doesn't promise a smooth road or a calm ocean. What lies before, after and at present echoes their painful struggles, 'it is hell, it is hell, it is hell.'

As much as they are susceptible to imprisonment, torture and even execution, nothing has been done to protect them so far.

Read more: Taking a trip through the
history of Middle Eastern cuisine

Witnessing the plight of refugees in their countries, a few locals are more open to a socially inclusive community regardless of where they are originally from.

In Greece, Yasmine discovers Nikos Katsouri of Home For All, Maria Ohilebo of Melissa and Lena Altinoglou of Nan restaurant proactively partake in food-based initiatives where friendships establish better understanding and solidarity towards the threatened.

Every day, the restaurants-turned-humanitarian organisations prepare meal packs free of charge levelling up a distinctive table menu with refugees taking comfort in the thick of preserving their own regional dishes from back home.

When asked why they do it without expectation, expressing gratitude is a practice only a few can master as a motive in life, especially when the less fortunate don't receive the basic necessities was the answer.

Because food is a single essential unifier, a huge achievement of this book empowers, unflinchingly and with grace, the collective consciousness which can be erased "as soon as we label culture with religious or ethnic terms".

Read also: Reappropriating hummus for justice

In the vivid narratives of a gypsy chef in Istanbul, or the British man married to a Greek-Cypriot, who warns the author about border crossings to the North, you tend to locate a beautiful element of humanity shifting conversations on migrant discrimination through an audacious journey such as this one.

Like any fresh, elegant eye-opener, the book in its most down to earth form helps the reader witness a celebrative simmering of ethno-cultural harmony beneath the political scenario making 'monsters of each other'.

Yasmin's masterful observation of a myriad hidden facets and flavours has enriched the voice of a refugee trying to make it home with risk-ridden prose.

Ripe Figs truly is a marvel and climbs up as a personal favourite for capturing in every respect the frustrations of living without a documented identity but not where the food is.

Rushda Rafeek is an award-winning poet and freelance writer with bylines in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, etc.

Follow her on Twitter: @ryushha