When Asma Khan speaks you listen, you listen because she speaks with a passion that is unnerving, says things as they are, and yet has this innate ability to lace coversations with an element of humour, while still making her point. I am meeting her at the Culinary Culture event at Mumbai's Taj Land’s End. Just the night before, she has done her first-ever pop-up in India, and even before we have settled down, she gleefully announces, “I knew only a handful of people in that room, and yet, here they were telling stories, tearing up over food. This is what food does. Food is never just food, food is an emotion, it is irrespective of caste, creed and colour.”
Conversations flow easily with Asma simply because she is warm and inviting, and has a lot going for her to talk about. Her restaurant Darjeeling Express in Carnaby Street, London, is a complete sell-out, and she is the first British chef to have landed herself a place in the acclaimed Netflix series Chef's Table. Speaking about her food, Asma, who grew up in the Calcutta of the 1980s says, "I cook the food of pre-partition India, the food our grandmothers cooked."
The menu at her restuarant comprises dishes like Tangra (Chinatown in Kolkata) chilli garlic prawns (a spicy Asian take on the traditional Spanish dish gambas al ajillo), mutton shikampuri kabab, Calcutta puchkas, goat kosha mangsho (slow-cooked Bengali goat curry with the occasional potato), prawn malaikari (traditional Bengali speciality of lightly spiced tiger prawns cooked in coconut milk) and the traditionally delicious Bengali aloo dum and puri. For dessert, gajjar ka halwa, Hyderabadi khoobani ka meetha and bhapa doi (Bengali steamed yoghurt) leave you craving for more.
The best bit about her restuarant is the fact that it has an all-women staff, and are all women who have no professional degree in cooking. In fact, most of her staff today are people she met on the run, Indian immigrants who came to London in search of a living, one example being Kalpana Sunder, a nanny who would come to her house to have chai and watch Zee TV, and soon became the first member of Khan’s team, and who we had the opportunity to meet. “My kitchen is a happy place, it is a place for mutual respect. There is no hierarchy involved; there is no screaming, shouting, looking down upon that goes around. Everyone is free to give their inputs to bettering a dish, everyone is singing, and is in a free space. And I make sure I cook with women like me. You can’t ask me anything in measurements, I will go mad. I can’t tell you one tablespoon of that and 300 gms of that. That’s not how we cook in our culture. It’s always about andaz and thoda. So, my weighing scale is my finger. I cook completely by my instinct, and that’s how it will always be.”
Asma first started cooking to beat loneliness and homesickness, as a new bride in the cold climes of London in 1991. At the same time, she also decided to study 'so people could think I was smart'. She did a PhD in Constitutional Law, with a thesis on the relationship between church and state, but let the degree be, because her real happiness lay in food. "I began my food business journey from home. I invested 50 pounds in a large pot. It was a simple start with a supper club for 12 people from around the neighbourhood. With time and word-of-mouth, the supper clubs started getting bigger in number, and soon, I could no longer do them at home, and moved out to a temporary kitchen and a pop-up. With time, I realised that a restaurant was the only way I could cook in peace, feed people as is our tradition, and also provide a permanent job for the women who worked with me from my supper-club days. But if you ask me now, I am not running a restaurant. Through my food, I want to bring about a social change, a change so strong that a time will come when an all-female kitchen will not be a big deal as it is today.”
Being the first British chef to land herself a place in Netflix’ Chef’s Tableis an honour she takes great pride in, but not for the fame that it will bring her, but for the force of change that she has had a chance to be through it. “I wanted the setting of the show to be as natural as possible, to showcase my team as they were in our kitchen. The show was my chance to talk about immigration, and highlight our women, their challenges. Women, often nameless and faceless, are the custodians of recipes and yet, we don’t honour them. My fight is for women, the silent, weak, destitute, poor and hungry. I’m very fortunate to have this platform to speak for the weak, and those who will never make it on stage. I can fight for others as I am in a position of strength.”
"I want to use my experience to open restaurants and cafe in places where women need to heal. When I turned 50, I celebrated it by setting up a café in a refugee camp in northern Iraq that employs Yazidi women. One of the women there, who went on to becoming me head chef later, had been sold seven times and was under trauma. But before I left, she told me cooking at my cafe made her feel better about herself. No money or accolade can compare itself to what I felt that day. Till I die, I want to use my food to heal women, to empower them."