"Food is such an incredible vehicle of discovery. For me, it's a wonderful entry point for understanding a place and a people at a particular space or time," says Yasmin Khan, fresh from her most recent culinary research trip.
She "absolutely loved" Istanbul but needed longer to get to know Athens, because she's interested in really getting a feel for a place, as opposed to merely skimming the surface. "I get the feeling Athens is the kind of place that's great if you really know where to go," she says.
It was this interest in uncovering the geography, climate, history, agriculture and feel for a people's place that landed her on bestsellers lists for her cookbooks – The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen and Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen – as well as landing her the opportunity to present alongside the late, great chef, Anthony Bourdain.
What's unusual is that Khan never actually trained as a chef. For an award-winning food writer, she has relatively little experience in the world of the professional kitchen. Instead, she trained in law and began a career in human rights, citing her Pakistani-Iranian heritage as the main reason behind her choice to work in the non-profit sector for 10 years. "Growing up against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution, I was drawn to this sector and I campaigned on everything from the arms trade to human rights in the aftermath of the occupation of Iraq," she says.
After a decade of human rights work, Khan took a career break to travel for six months. In retrospect, it appears that this sojourn was career-defining, considering how much she has achieved in a completely different field over 10 years.
It was during her six-month journey, that the idea for her first book, The Saffron Tales was born, detailing cuisine, culture and her own experiences growing up on her grandparents' farm. "I had no background in food; I wasn't trained in any way and had never written a recipe, but I knew I could cook," she says of her decision to begin writing The Saffron Tales, which hit its 50 per cent crowdfunding target on Kickstarter within 24 hours of going live.
"What I love about using crowd-funders is that they give you a real sense of power. You get the sense of a community of people who want this idea to manifest in the real world and that's really powerful," she says of The Saffron Tales's initial reception.
The book is brimming with memories and when you hear Khan talk about her native Iran, every word is thick with nostalgia for her formative years. "I had a playground of fresh produce to frolic in, from running around the rice paddies to climbing trees to picking pomegranates and apples to harvesting fresh aubergines and watermelons," she says of her grandparents' farm in the north of Iran. "Or to sit with my grandmother to hand-churn butter or milk the cows.
"What I like to do with my books is take people on a journey," she says. For Khan, a recipe book is more than a compendium of dishes – it's an insight into an entire world. "I've worked in human rights for a very long time and I really came to the conclusion that it's the dehumanisation of 'the other' that leads to all the human rights abuses that exist in the world and if we can just start to build connections, it helps change perceptions," she says.
The worlds in Khan's books are both beautiful and deeply troubled. Rather than delivering hyper-saturated, Instagram-worthy messages of unerring delight, Khan instead highlights the political situations of the places she finds so fascinating, as well as celebrating the glorious dishes that are seasoned with the history and politics of those countries. "The genre I'm interested in pushing out there is perhaps the real issues people face in these areas where we're celebrating the food, so why not tell the whole story?" says Khan, giving the example of two divergent stories in her books. The first tale involves her sitting in the moonlight with some yoga teachers eating a spiced chickpea and tomato stew, the other of being held at a checkpoint by an Israeli soldier. "In Palestine, food isn't separate from politics. Every day, their meals are affected by the occupation," she says. Palestinian olive farmers are prevented from tending to their groves thanks to settlers uprooting their trees and damaging their land. The partition wall also deprives Palestinian farmers' olive groves of vital water.
Even more starkly, she tells of the food in Gaza being historically influenced by its proximity to the sea, with seafood dishes – such as sardines and prawns, traditionally representative of the area – now in extreme short supply owing to the blockade of Gaza. "I include seafood recipes in the book, but also I can't ignore the fact that 80 per cent of people in Gaza rely on food aid to survive because the fishing trade has been completely decimated," she says.
“The fishermen get shot at if they go further than six miles, but their fish supplies start seven miles out.”
What makes Khan's food writing so palpable and her bestselling books do so well is her desire to communicate the whole story of a place by eliminating stereotypes and creating a human connection to conflict zones whose connotations are usually so tied up with negativity. "So many people have said they are inspired to visit Iran based on reading my book. It's quite a big thing and it makes me so happy because it's such a beautiful country and people don't get to see the complexity and all the different nuances of everyday life there," Khan says.
At the other end of the narrative are the people Khan met along the way; those inviting her into their homes to cook, to learn, to partake in the story of their lives, as well as experience their hospitality. "When I explain my mission to people, to use food as a way to celebrate their culture. They're always so welcoming and enthused by the idea.
“People in the Middle East are so fed up of the same old stereotypes, that just the opportunity to share something positive from their culture is really nice,” she says of people’s willingness to share their culinary heritage with her and the rest of the world, through her books.
The recipes in Khan's books were developed with real people in their homes, each dish contributing to the full story of a place. "There's a real intimacy that's found in the kitchen and especially in home kitchens," says Khan. She is insistent that the time spent cooking with people in each of these countries is the reason behind their openness. "When you're invited into someone's home and you pick up a knife and you start doing tasks like cutting an onion while they're stirring a pot, you immediately create a bond," Khan explains.
“I’ve spent years interviewing people, but the stories that come out when you’re in the kitchen, they are some of the most tender, sweet and emotional stories I have ever come across,” she says, citing the smells of onions sizzling in a pan and the sounds of slicing peppers on a wooden chopping board as keys to nostalgia, a sensory trip that gets people talking. “Cooking is a grounding thing for me. It involves me being really present in my body,” says Khan.
Perhaps then, in this busy world that we live in, in which moments pass us by and everything happens so quickly, the very act of slowing down to cook, to immerse ourselves in the world of the kitchen, is exactly what we all need to connect, not just with other cultures, but with ourselves.