For thousands of years, the Eastern Mediterranean has been a place that connects cultures and continents through empire, trade and migration. To think of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus is to imagine cobalt blue skies and sparkling seas, sunny islands filled with olive and citrus trees, and tables laden with mezze with crunchy rings of squid and vibrant chopped salads. It is a place where the family is at the center, tradition is in the spotlight and meals are enjoyed slowly and always in good company. It is also a rapidly changing place. Since 2015, around 5 million political refugees have crossed the region, the largest movement of people Europe has seen since World War II. That’s a huge number by any standards, but maybe just the tip of the iceberg.
The link between climate change and food systems has long been documented, from the impact of environmental damage on crops and farmland to calls for more local, seasonal, organic and plant-based diets to conserve natural resources. But the climate crisis and food are also linked in other ways, including through migration. As changing weather conditions, rising sea levels and destruction of the environment lead to crop failures and food shortages, large areas of the land are gradually becoming uninhabitable and people are forced to move. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 we will see more than 143 million climate migrants, a global challenge that may change our ideas about the movement of peoples. It is also likely to change the way we eat, as new migrant communities influence local food pathways.
To learn more about the struggles facing forcibly displaced people, I traveled to the Eastern Mediterranean on a mission to cook and interview refugees from all walks of life, sharing their stories in my new cookbook, Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. It was a journey through clay soils and an air rich in scent of orange blossom and thyme, punctuated by hundreds of conversations around small cups of dense and sweet black coffee. At the kitchen tables of immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Myanmar, I kneaded bread stuffed with Kalamata olives, cigarillos rolled in grape leaf dolmas and marinated chicken with pomegranate molasses and allspice to grill over hot coals.
Mozhdeh, a young Iranian woman (who did not share her last name), explained how recreation of the food of her homeland provided her comfort and comfort in times of calamity; the kitchen had become one of the few places where she could retain a sense of identity and dignity in the context of so much loss. We swapped recipes and agreed that our favorite Persian dish was kashk-e badinjan, a rich and creamy eggplant dip with fermented yogurt. I also spoke to people working on refugee food projects, like Lena Altinoglou, who opened a restaurant called Nan (named after the Central Asian word for bread), where locals and refugees work side by side. coast on the Greek island of Lesbos. Its aim was to create jobs for the two communities, as well as a space in which they can work together, share meals and perhaps understand each other a little more.
The following recipes are a selection of my favorites from my travels, each highlighting a unique and delicious attribute of this ever more diverse region. Climate migration will force us to reinvent the way we live together on our common planet, and I hope it will also make us re-evaluate our notions of man-made borders so that people can move safely and live. in dignity. I returned from my trip knowing that this was a topic that we urgently need to discuss as a society. And in my mind, there’s no better place to have these conversations than at the dining table.