Climate Migration Will Change The Way We Eat. Here’s a Taste of What’s Ahead

For thousands of years the Eastern Mediterranean has been a place that connects cultures and continents through empire, trade and migration. When you think of Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus, you imagine cobalt blue skies and shimmering seas, sun-drenched islands with olive groves and citrus trees, and meze-laden tables with crispy calamari rings and lively chopped salads. It is a place where family is at the center, tradition is honored and meals should be enjoyed slowly and always in good company. It’s also a place that is changing rapidly. An estimated 5 million political refugees have passed through the region since 2015, the largest movement of people Europe has seen since World War II. This is a huge number in every way, but maybe just the tip of the iceberg.

The relationship between climate change and food systems has long been documented, from the effects of environmental damage on crops and farmland to calls for a more local, seasonal, organic and plant-based diet to conserve natural resources. The climate crisis and nutrition are also linked in other ways, in particular through migration. As changing weather conditions, rising sea levels and environmental degradation lead to crop failures and food shortages, large parts of the earth are becoming increasingly uninhabitable and people are being forced to move. The World Bank estimates we will see over 143 million climate migrants by 2050, a global challenge that is likely to change the way we think about the movement of peoples. How we eat is also likely to change as new migrant communities affect local food routes.

Writer and cookbook author Yasmin Kahn

Photo by Matt Russell

To learn more about the struggles of the displaced, I traveled to the Eastern Mediterranean to cook with and interview refugees from all walks of life. I told their stories in my new cookbook. Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. It was a journey through clay-red soil and air rich in orange blossom and thyme, interrupted by hundreds of conversations over small cups of thick, sweet black coffee. At the kitchen tables of immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Myanmar, I kneaded bread filled with kalamata olives, rolled cigarillos made from grape leaf dolmas and marinated chicken with pomegranate molasses and allspice to be grilled over hot coals.

Mozhdeh, a young woman from Iran (who did not share her last name), spoke about how restoring the food in her homeland offered comfort and comfort in times of adversity. The kitchen had become one of the few places where she could retain a sense of identity and dignity after losing so much. We exchanged the 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 on the Greek island of Lesbos. Their goal was to create workplaces for both communities and create a space where they could work together, share meals and maybe get along a little better.

The following recipes are a selection of my favorites from my travels, each highlighting a unique and delicious attribute of this ever-changing region. Climate migration will force us to rethink our coexistence on our common planet, and I hope that it will also enable us to reassess our ideas about artificial boundaries so that people can move safely and live in dignity. Returning from my trip, I knew that this was an issue that we as a society urgently need to discuss. And in my opinion, there is no better place to have these conversations than at the dining room table.

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Halloumi Saganaki

Did someone say fried cheese? Halloumi drizzled with honey and aromatic thyme makes for an ideal sweet, salty and crispy starter.

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Istanbul’s famous mackerel sandwiches

Istanbul is famous for its grilled mackerel sandwiches with fresh lemon and lots of crispy vegetables – best when strolling along the Bosphorus, but also when cooking or picnicking.

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