HT Brunch Cover story: Meet Asma Khan, the Kolkata-born chef all of London is talking about!
In London on a holiday, it is one of those days when one craves Indian food. In my experience, however, desi food in London is heavy or gimmicky and for the most part, underwhelming. Except for the food at Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express, where getting a last-minute table isn’t going to be easy. Still, we decide to give it a shot and we are in luck.
There is a nostalgic simplicity to the space inside the restaurant where the only décor is photographs of Asma’s family-owned royal havelis and the fortress from Aligarh. The food itself could well be something a Bengali housewife is likely to read off a list stuck to her fridge as the possible menu for a small house party.
We order the Goat Kosha Mangsho (mutton curry), Hyderabadi dal, Bengali aloo dum, luchis and channa chat. Expectation turns to agony every time a steaming dish bypasses us on its way to another table. This gives us plenty of time to admire the restaurant’s all-women crew and its open kitchen where five women chefs are working on orders.
Asma Khan, dressed in a salwar- kameez, is personally attending to the tables. When she brings us the peela pulao I compliment her on her food and we get talking. She smiles as she talks about Kolkata. “My formative years were in Calcutta and I see myself as a citizen of Calcutta even today despite living away for 28 years,” she says warmly. Growing up, she never thought she would be running a successful restaurant far away from home in London.
But, “I am not running a restaurant. To me, it is part of a much larger movement. Though you see my face, actually it is the face of a movement because behind me are other women who will surpass me, and a time will come when an all-female kitchen will not be a big deal as it is today,” Asma says. Not surprisingly, this statement of hers has my interest piqued. We decide to meet at her restaurant in the evening.
Not a competition, not a game
“I opened my restaurant because I derive great satisfaction from looking after my guests and feeding them. It is a part of our tradition, isn’t it?” she tells me a few hours later.
Two years ago, Asma timed the launch of Darjeeling Express with the last day of Ramzan and held an iftar for 500 homeless and poor people. That tradition of feeding the hungry is something her restaurant observes every Ramzan by sending food to the homeless, to drug addiction centres and broke students who have nowhere to break their fast.
“We provide free meals to those who are hungry in this month when people are deliberately not eating and breaking their fast at sunset. But for some people this is an everyday reality – their sunset never comes, hunger and thirst to them are relentless,” she says.
Asma believes the original purpose of cooking is to nourish and heal, and that people in the business seem to be forgetting that. “Everybody wants to cook to be on MasterChef, but cooking has lost its original purpose,” says Asma. “We offered food to gods. I find it slightly problematic when I see people playing around with it.” Little wonder then that she sticks with the traditions of the Rajputana kitchens of Hyderabad, her father being a descendant of the Nizam’s family, and the Mughal cuisine of the royals of Bengal, her mother’s forebearers. “I often tell people I cook the food of undivided, pre-partition India. I’m serving you the forgotten food of the Muslim households of the 1930s,” she says.
Mother tongue in every way
Asma has come a long way from the newly-married bride who arrived in England in 1991 to be with her husband Mustaq, an economics professor at Cambridge. She began her new life in England in the bitter cold of January with no warm clothes.
“Mustaq is a typical professor and had spent a large part of his life in England already. I wasn’t allowed to be friends with his students, and I wasn’t faculty, so I remained friendless,” Asma says candidly. She also did not know how to cook.
The first summer Asma went home she told her mother she wasn’t going back. “I told her, ‘Ammi my husband is very sweet and nice, but I am very hungry. I am not going back’.” Her mother was horrified and immediately began teaching Asma all the nuances of cooking.
By the time she returned to England, she had become a pro. “And when I cooked, with the aromas that emanated from my stove, I felt my mother was standing next to me and I was no longer alone,” she says. “This is why I serve people. Because I do not know the battles you are fighting but I will serve you just in case you are going through what I went through.”
The true way home
This is the reason why Asma has made it her life’s mission to set up kitchens in refugee camps. When she turned 50 this July, she celebrated her birthday by setting up a café at a Yazidi women’s camp in Iraq. This was at the back of her trip to Jordan to cook with Syrian women asylum seekers. “I wanted them to cook their food so that for that moment that alien soil becomes their mitti,” she says. “Food and what it does for our spirit has a lot to do with our childhood. I remember sitting in ammi’s lap and being fed by hand. Serving food made with that intention at my restaurant is the closest I can come to giving you that experience.”
A staunch believer in the power of the women’s collective, Asma gives credit for her success to the women in her family. “In my growing years, I was never beautiful. I was dark-skinned, I was the tomboy, the one nobody could find a groom for. But my sister would tell me, you are going to be a Rani of Jhansi and tum khandaan ka naam uncha karogi. This is why I cannot even by mistake see this as a huge achievement on my part. I am standing on the shoulders of many women…they have lifted me,” she says.
As a child, when travelling to Darjeeling from New Jalpaiguri every summer, Asma would yell out her name to the mountains and they’d echo it back to her. “I used to imagine that the mountains were people and that one day I’d be famous and everybody would know my name.” This is how the name of her restaurant came about.
Cooking up a restaurant
Asma knew that cooking for people was her calling long before she thought of making a career of it. Cambridge students were raising money for the wounded in Sarajevo after the siege had been lifted. She contributed by making a thousand samosas overnight. A middle-eastern gentleman bought three samosas from her and handed her a £50 pound note that she thought was a fake bill. ‘Allah has blessed your hands – you cannot imagine how beautiful that samosa is, you will go far,’ he told her. “That’s when I knew that I was doing, something not bad,” she says,
Though she earned a degree in law from Kings College, London, followed by a PhD, the only thing that fulfilled her was cooking for people and she decided to secretly host supper clubs at their South Kensington home.
“I did it every time my husband travelled on work and soon my supper club became sought after,” she says with pride. This was where she groomed nannies, nurses, and cleaners from the hospital next door to become part-time cooks. They continue to work with her at Darjeeling Express today. And when her sons complained to Asma’s father about this invasion of their private space, she moved her operations to a pub at Soho and eventually set up her restaurant at Kingly Court.
Her parents were aghast. “Tum khansama banogi?” they asked. “Our dadis, nanis and mothers cooked for us. Why is there no honour attached to women cooking today?” she asks. Asma longs for the perception of working in a kitchen to change from manual labour to one that commands honour.
Making a difference
I question her about the challenges involved in being a brown-skinned woman in a male-dominated industry in a white country. “What bothers me is that white people do not understand white privilege,” she says. “White feminists also I do not understand because they do not have space for me on their platform. Yes, being Muslim is an important part of my identity. I do not eat pork or drink alcohol, but I also do not wear the hijab. White women don’t understand this. I don’t need to burn everything sacred to me to prove that I am a feminist. Don’t tell me what I am.”
It is manifestly evident by now that Asma Khan isn’t just a mistress of spices but also a woman of penetrating intellect. And she has an ascetic’s approach towards success, believing it can get taken away in the blink of an eye. “I only want enough money for my shroud. But I’ll tell you one thing, I am not willing to die till I have made a difference,” Asma says.
Garima Arora and her Michelin star
In November 2018, Garima Arora of Gaa restaurant in Bangkok became the first Indian woman to head a Michelin-starred kitchen. Asma Khan, owner of London’s Darjeeling Express and renowned as one of the world’s finest cooks herself, was delighted. “Garima’s food is outstanding. I would love to go and hug her,” says Asma. “I am so proud of what she has done.”
Asma believes Garima’s achievement is incredible. “Michelin does not understand our food,” she says. “The Michelin concept is a very French way of looking at things. It has had its time, but it needs to progress and recognise diverse cuisines.”
Author bio: Shunali is an author and an avid traveller who has recently authored Love in the Time of Affluenza. Follow her on social media at @shunalishroff
Join the conversation using #AllWomenKitchen
HT Brunch columnist Vir Sanghvi wrote about Asma Khan in Rude Food, in the issue dated February 24, 2019.
Read it here: The rise of Miss Khan
From HT Brunch,November 17, 2019
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