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How a Former Human Rights Campaigner Wrote One of the Most Powerful Cookbooks of the Year

published Jun 13, 2019
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Yasmin Khan’s cookbooks aren’t just filled with recipes — they’re also filled with the stories of the people who cook them (in their own kitchens, in their own homes, in their own countries). She’s a former human rights campaigner turned cookbook author whose culinary adventures take the shape of a home-cooked meal. The child of an Iranian mother and a Pakistani father, Khan’s uniquely personal approach has taken a particular focus on the food, flavors, and families of the Middle East. Her latest cookbook, Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen, is a portrait of the people and the food of Palestine — where many face the challenge of simply existing.

We caught up with Yasmin in London recently to talk about her massively ambitious cookbook and the important stories she’s excited about telling next.

There’s a lovely story behind your cookbook’s name. Tell us about it?

I actually had the name Zaitoun ready as soon as I came up with the book concept for a lot of reasons. I love the word — it’s so evocative and even just sounds nice when you say it. It means “olive” in Arabic and Farsi, which is the language I speak because I am half Iranian. Olives are really the central component in Palestinian cuisine. You find small bowls on the table at every meal, and most dishes are finished with thick glugs of extra-peppery extra-virgin olive oil.

But also, for many Palestinians, olive trees represent their connection to the land. Over 80 percent of agricultural land in the West Bank is used for olive farming — it’s a key crop. And the olive branch is universally known as a symbol of peace. So when we’re talking about the Palestinian communities who are living under such incredible hardship, I wanted to draw attention to the olive. For all of those reasons, olive and Zaitoun felt like a good place to start.

Credit: Maria Bell/Kitchn

You spoke to real people in their real kitchens while writing your book. What was the experience like?

Palestinians are so warm and so generous. There was something so intimate about cooking with someone in their home. Everyone is always relaxed in that space, and you might have troubles going on outside, but when you’re there slicing tomatoes or dicing cucumbers, you get into this slightly meditative mode, which is the best place to have interesting conversations.

The recipes are absolutely stunning. Is this how you eat on a daily basis?

Yeah! I was eating this way well before I wrote the cookbook. The food I like eating is predominantly vegetable-focused. I eat a lot of pulses and beans and lentils. And the flavorings of Palestinian food are very familiar to me. I grew up eating Iranian food, so we are used to things like sumac and bright citrus. What I love about Middle Eastern food is that you get so much flavor for such little effort. It’s not a complex or fussy type of cuisine — ingredients are left as they are so they can be enjoyed. It’s about using things that you have in your cupboard, like cinnamon or allspice, in a slightly different way.

Make a recipe from Yasmin’s cookbook: Roast Chicken with Sumac and Red Onions (Mussakhan)

You were careful to avoid trivializing the political situation in Palestine. How did you manage to do so?

I think it’s a challenge, right? No one wants to be bummed out by reading a cookbook, but at the same time what I would like to demonstrate with my work is that it is possible to mix sensitive commentary on serious issues that affect people’s lives along with the creative beauty of food. People’s lives aren’t lived in isolation.

What I wanted to do was really explore the sum of the human experience through the prism of food. Sometimes food can be joyous, or even your access to it can be challenging. You have to live in a very isolated and privileged bubble if you think that food is separate from politics … because it isn’t. Every food choice that we make, every food that we consume, whether we have the ability to access food at all — it’s inherently political. What I’ve tried to do in my work is walk that tight line of sharing beautiful, creative stories and recipes and to celebrate life, but not shy away from life’s harsh realities.

Credit: Maria Bell/Kitchn

You wrote this book with “an outsider” perspective (your words). Did that help you?

Massively, actually. There’s a lot of sensitivity in the U.S. at the moment about cultural appropriation and whether or not people should be making cookbooks about cultures that they are not from. And while I understand people’s sensitivities around communities of color having not been adequately represented in the mainstream media, I also think at the same time that history has always benefited from outsiders writing about things that are happening. I think the beauty of being an outsider to the Israel/Palestine situation, if I’m being honest, is that I don’t have the same emotional relationship to it as an Israeli or a Palestinian. Therefore, what is quite an inflammatory topic for a lot of people, I can approach with perhaps a more calm outside eye.

You didn’t start out in the food space, which makes you an outsider of sorts in the cookbook universe too.

Food has always been a place where I felt really at home. My mom was a nutritionist, my family members are rice farmers in Iran. To this day, visiting my family means harvesting vegetables from the garden or picking kiwis, apples, and pomegranates from the trees.

When I was a nonprofit worker and human rights campaigner, the kitchen was the place I would go to relax or seek solace, so it didn’t feel like too much of a jump in a way. I was always cooking for friends and poring over cookbooks. Whenever I went traveling, some of the most fascinating places for me were the supermarkets. It’s a guilty pleasure for me — loving supermarkets in foreign countries, getting lost in all of the different produce and products. Everywhere I go, food is part of my experience.

Credit: Maria Bell/Kitchn

What about the experience most surprised you?

I wasn’t prepared for how affected I would be by seeing the reality of what is happening to Palestinians on a daily basis. I also wasn’t prepared for how intimidating the Israeli security forces would be. That was really quite traumatic. It almost made me not want to go back for the second research trip. It’s really hard to go and visit refugee camps and see how the wall rips through communities, and hearing stories; it’s hard to not absorb all that. I kind of expected it, but I didn’t know it would be as hard.

Anthony Bourdain praised Zaitoun before he died. What role did his work play in centering your mission?

I think that what he represented is something that we need now more than ever. There’s this real hunger for speaking about things as they are. He just had this real brilliance for exploring ordinary life through food. I feel very privileged to be around the food world at the time that he was around. His presence is missed terribly.

What are you working on next?

I am working on a real wide bunch of stuff! I do some presenting for the BBC, so I have a few radio shows coming up — one about ice cream that I’m really excited about. I really love radio; it’s my favorite medium. I’d love to do a podcast one day too. Something where I interview people over their favourite meals, like I do in my book, whilst talking about all things political, social and delicious.  Do you know anyone who would fund that?!”

I am also writing another cookbook. I can’t really talk about what it’s about, but I am working on another book. It won’t be out for a couple of years because it’s a bit more ambitious and continues to look at what I think is one of the most important sociopolitical issues of our time through the prism of food. I can’t really say much more than that.

Follow Yasmin around the Internet on her website, Twitter, and on Instagram. You can also purchase her cookbooks here.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.