“I want to give people a different perspective,” Yasmin Khan, the award-winning, best-selling cookbook author, broadcaster and communications consultant tells me.
Her books, Zaitoun and The Saffron Tales, use food and recipes to tell everyday human stories and challenge stereotypes of the Middle East.
“People in Iran and Palestine don’t want to be seen as terrorists or victims. this gives them a chance to be in control of how they are seen”
To research her books, Yasmin travels extensively, exploring these countries to discover people with whom she can converse, cook with and share their experiences.
“It is an unusual blueprint,” she smiles, “and I do it slowly, spending a lot of time interacting with local people from all walks of life, hoping to be invited into their kitchens to cook with them.”
From cafe owners and fishermen to DJs and pharmacists, no-one is immune to Yasmin’s drive to reflect and explore the everyday reality of those living in these conflicted countries, and her award-winning books reflect this.
No staged recipes photographed in London studios for Yasmin then. The 39-year-old’s approach is totally different because she uses food to highlight the realities of those living amongst wars, regimes or political dissent in the Middle-East, exploring the people and their realities through their stories and recipes.
“Middle-Eastern culture is all interlinked around hospitality”
“I wasn’t ever interested in writing a conventional recipe book. There are plenty of people doing that already. I wanted to give people something else. Because there is a narrative running through all humans, and food is something that unites and draws people together. So I do a lot of sitting and having conversations with people around the kitchen table,” she explains.
“People in Iran and Palestine want you to know about their everyday, how they live, what they eat. They don’t want to be seen as terrorists or victims. It gives them a chance to be seen in a different way, to be in control of how they are seen,” she explains.
“And what you have to remember is that these people are sick of being stereotyped so when you tell them about your mission they are really welcoming and encouraging.”
To achieve this Yasmin travels to the Middle-East herself, to rout out these individuals and residents, and to reveal the truth in their everyday.
“I want to share human stories through a prism of food to change the stereotypes,” she explains.
Yasmin’s next cookbook, Ripe Figs, coming out in the spring, explores the food of the Eastern Mediterranean while shining a light on the borders and migrant crisis in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.
And while these voyages may sound exciting, she says they can also be “frightening at times – travelling around countries you don’t know, trying to converse in a language you can’t speak, as a woman on your own. But on the other hand I relish the challenge.”
That Yasmin Khan is brilliant, inspirational and trail-blazing is not in question though, because not only has Yasmin been a key component in the renaissance of Middle-Eastern food, alongside the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sabrina Ghayour, but she’s reinvented the cookery writing genre as she went along.
She has also transitioned easily from law and human rights campaigner to Middle-Eastern cookbook writer and author without batting an eyelid.
No wonder then that Don Sloan of the Oxford Cultural Collective has enrolled her to host a masterclass on brand awareness to help those starting up in the food business.
The OCC’s international programme of masterclasses are designed for those with a passion for food, drink and hospitality, whether experienced professionals or enthusiastic amateurs.
“there is nothing unique in my trajectory. It boils down to self belief and hard work”
The online masterclasses, which start in October, are delivered by internationally renowned experts, including academics, journalists, authors, chefs, creatives, campaigners and broadcasters, to equip you with knowledge and skills to face your future with confidence.
The initial programme features Yasmin, Felicity Cloake, Julian Baggini, Levi Roots, Nik Sharma, Zoe Adjonyoh, Karen Barnes, Lolis Eric Elie, Jean Roberts, Jessica B. Harris, Elise Dillsworth and Fuchsia Dunlop.
Yasmin’s masterclass focuses on branding. So why this particular topic? “My event is a response to the resurgent interest in food in a very saturated market, so it will be a very practical workshop for anyone wanting to write cookbooks, become a food writer or start their own business or restaurant, in terms of carving out a niche for themselves,” she explains.
“I’ve been running workshops for a long time. They are really fun and I enjoy them; I like the interaction and sharing my knowledge that I’ve learnt throughout my careers.”
As for the surge in Middle Eastern cooking and cookbooks, Yasmin says: “I’m glad to be part of that wave, and while I feel very lucky and blessed there is nothing unique in my trajectory.
“It boils down to self belief and hard work. I’d never worked in a kitchen, cooked for more than 10 people or written a recipe, before my transition, but I learnt. It was tough sometimes but I just developed a new skillset. It’s all about repetition and belief.
“In a way my mission hasn’t changed since I was a human rights campaigner, because my work is still about people and their stories”
Half Iranian and half Pakistani, Yasmin was born in London, did law at university, a masters at LSE and then spent ten years in the non-profit sector before reinventing herself as a cookery writer and author.
Her heritage has obviously inspired Yasmin’s bent, her mother a professor in public health, while hailing from a farming family in Northern Iran.
So how has Yasmin’s upbringing influenced her choice of career? “We grew up around fresh produce in a house full of family and friends. Provenance, nurture and nutrition was a big part of how I grew up. Nutrition was everything – we were drinking raw juice and eating brown rice long before it was ‘a thing’,” she laughs.
“It was a weird, wonderful and unique upbringing because Middle-Eastern culture is all interlinked around hospitality. But to me there was nothing new about it.
“But in a way my mission hasn’t changed since I was a human rights campaigner, because my work is still about people and their stories which then challenge stereotypes we have about individuals and their countries, especially in the Middle-East. My cookbooks just provide a different opportunity to share stories and photos.”
HOW TO BUILD A BRAND, WITH YASMIN KHAN (AN OCC MASTERCLASS) takes place on Monday, October 12 , 5pm- 7pm online, and looks at how to create a meaningful and successful personal or business brand, learn easy tricks on how to stand out in a saturated market, grow your audience and customer base, raise your income and better connect your work to your mission so that you can reach the widest possible numbers of people with what you do.
All other Oxford Cultural Collective masterclasses can also be booked here: https://oxfordculturalcollective.com/masterclasses/
The Saffron Tales and Zaitoun are published by Bloomsbury and available from all good bookshops.