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Zaitoun: Interview with Yasmin Khan

Food and travel writer Yasmin Khan travelled extensively to collect the recipes and stories for her new book, Zaitoun, a celebration of Palestinian food culture

Zaitoun: Interview with Yasmin Khan
Yasmin Khan. Image: Matt Russell

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Where did your passion for food and travel come from?
My mum is from Iran, my dad from Pakistan, and I was born and brought up in the UK. My family in Iran are farming people, so food was a huge part of my childhood. I was exposed to so many different types of fruit and veg: pomegranates, oranges, figs, greengages, peppers. My earliest memories are of me and my cousins running around fields, climbing trees to get apples. As a travel writer, I’m fascinated by the world and am always looking at new ways to explore it. How people prepare food and eat it can tell you so much about a place, its climate, its geography and economy, its gender relations…

What do you think is behind the explosion in popularity of Middle Eastern food?
The current food trends — the drive to eat local, seasonal produce —tie in exactly with what Palestinian food is all about. Food is distinct between towns and villages, and the landscape dictates what people eat in each locality. I’m passionate about encouraging people to cook Middle Eastern food at home. It’s very straightforward, the flavours are refreshing, and it’s so colourful that you feel better just looking at it. I’m a home cook, so I wanted to write recipes I’d actually make myself, after work.

How is Palestinian cooking distinct from the food in other parts of the Middle East?
It’s evolved from so many different cultures: there are Ottoman, Arabic, Persian, Jewish, Christian and Armenian influences. This book is quite different from the Persian recipes in [my book] Saffron Tales; there’s not a huge amount of spicing and the flavour palette is very subtle, fresh and citrusy. It’s mainly about getting the veg to sing, with a squeeze of lemon or lime, extra virgin olive oil and herbs like mint and parsley. I called it Zaitoun, meaning ‘olive’, because olives and olive oil are central; they eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

What are the key spices?
There are three main ones: cinnamon, cumin and allspice. The biggest thing I’ve learned since writing this book has been to use allspice in savoury dishes. It works really well and gives a natural warmth. I recently cooked a chickpea and spinach dish, and seasoned it with allspice — it was so good.

Which area in the region appeals to you most, in terms of its cuisine?
I love Galilee — I’m a big fan of veg, and the fresh produce there is incredible. There are wonderful aubergines, asparagus, peppers and green beans, incredible vineyards and the freshest fish and seafood. It really feels Mediterranean.

Have the complex politics in the region influenced the food?
We’re used to the idea that food is always celebratory, always joyous, but that clearly isn’t true for everyone. Around 80% of the population of Gaza is dependent on food aid, and 96% of Gaza’s water is unfit for human consumption, according to the United Nations. Palestinians have had to adapt, and as a result are very resilient.

How were you received as you travelled around?
I was blown away by the hospitality. People were so generous about opening up their homes to me; there’s a passionate desire for ordinary Palestinians to invite the world to see them through a more human lens. I did experience some negativity, but I understand where it came from; the region has been over-researched for decades by Westerners. It’s important to be aware of the sensitivities of that and how we’re perceived. I wanted to show everything in this book, because food is everything — it’s comforting and it can be celebratory.

Do you have a favourite recipe from the book?
My current favourite is lamb meatballs baked over roast potatoes, with a tahini sauce. It’s really special. I’m obsessed with tahini — this morning I put it on my porridge with some date molasses. Delicious.

Yasmin Khan’s book, Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen is published by Bloomsbury (£23.40).

Follow @yasmin_khan