Finally, an Indian chef who’s running one of the world’s most popular restaurants—Darjeeling Express (London)—without donning the proverbial chef’s apron or the celeb tag, without attending any prestigious culinary school to ace her cutting chops, without the shadow of the quintessential male chef in her kitchen and without any contemporary fusion to food.
Thanks to a team of all-women chefs manning the kitchen and serving traditional Indian khana at Darjeeling Express, founded by chef Asma Khan, Londoners are taking to Indian delicacies such as mutton kosha, raita, biryani, korma, haleem and pani puri like never before! And above all else, a kind soul who believes in the crunch of samosas and the soul-stirring aroma of biryani to heal the soul! She’s a name who’s reviving the lore of traditional Indian cuisine cooked the authentic way in the posh hood of Carnaby Street in London.
Bringing back home-style cooking—royal Mughlai and Bengali styles—into the spotlight, Kolkata-born Asma Khan’s story is a powerful one that’s stirring an important movement about the journey of an immigrant, of being a Muslim in the UK, about Indian food and women in food community (home chefs) across the globe.
Homecoming for Asma Khan
In Mumbai for her first-ever pop up to create a special culinary experience as a part of Culinary Culture, a new food initiative, Khan with her all-woman team rustled up a meal that left many teary-eyed and hungry for familiar flavours that embrace you in a comforting hug. Essentially food that is oft lost in modern kitchens but cooked in home kitchens.
Ask her about her decision of working with an all-woman team in a high-octane restaurant kitchen setup and she retorts, “I can’t answer gadha (oh that’s her favourite word!) questions like “should I cut the potato in one or one and a half inch cubes?” We come from a culture where it’s about touch and feel; when did our mothers and grandmothers ask about the right-sized cuts or weighed the ingredients before cooking them? It’s all about observing and learning from andaaz. The most likely response you get from your mother about quantity is always thodasa. It’s about cooking with love and feeding with love that triumphs the perfect cut, size and measurement conversations in my kitchen at Darjeeling Ex-press.”
Just like Khan, who moved to the UK after getting married, the team of women chefs at Darjeeling Express that opened in 2017 are all women immigrants, mostly from India, who worked as nannies in Khan’s kids' school. “My kitchen is a very relaxed space where there is a lot of respect for each other.”
What’s clear is that Khan is not one to brandish the quintessential celebrity temper that has long dominated the orb of chefs to make her voice heard. Instead, she believes in leading by example. Building an all-woman team is her way of standing up against the macho, aggressive environment in the food industry and breaking the glass ceiling by making a safe space for women. A movement she hopes will gain more ground in the coming years, to honour women who cook.
From homemaker to celebrity chef
A lawyer with a PhD in British constitutional law, Khan — a descendant of the Rajput tribe and Bengali royal family — is a serial non-conformist and a hustler who’s chasing her dreams at 50. As the first British chef to appear on the popular Netflix program Chef’s Table, and the author of the award-winning book Asma’s Indian Kitchen, Khan started her professional career in Kolkata as an advertising executive, then a journalist, before getting married and moving to the UK.
To deal with homesickness, she turned to food and went back to old family recipes. From not knowing how to boil an egg to coming back to India to learn about her culinary heritage and food that made her feel at home in London, Khan believes that food binds people and serves as a bridge between communities. She started from hosting a supper club at home when her husband was away with fellow immigrant women, shifted it to a Soho pub where she won the critical acclaim of noted food critic Faye Mashler and finally opened her award-winning restaurant Darjeeling Express. Here she serves a hearty dose of stories and heritage behind every dish to her patrons.
Going back to traditional recipes
Born into a Kolkata family where “food was at the core of our existence for all celebratory and non-celebratory occasions,” Khan is quick to share that Kolkata or Calcutta, as she fondly remembers the city, is where she finds her culinary inspiration. “My mother ran a catering business in the 1980s, so I grew up in a kitchen. Back then, there were no mobile phones, no television, so I grew up observing all the action inside the kitchen. Although I only watched food being prepared all the time, it exposed me to a wide range of food in Kolkata and the many processes of cooking that I couldn't forget.”
She learnt the nuances of Indian cooking while watching her mother cook. “It’s the art of layering that makes Indian cuisine so powerful. We add namak in different stages. Even spices add new layers and flavours to food as you add them in different stages. When you grow up in a household where you learn these subtleties of cooking from your mother or grandmother, you don’t forget that easily.”
A free-wheeling chat with Khan is reason enough to believe that her raison d'être is to deal with politics in food by winning hearts— with her disarming smile, delicate flavours in food, unapologetic sense of humour and convincing skills, her nonchalant take on misogyny within the male-dominated industry of hospitality that can move and sear even the most sombre congregations. And winning hearts of the sisterhood across the world whom she seeks to empower through cooking and the power of cooking.
Here she speaks about being a Calcutta girl, her thoughts on food trends, sustainability and her future plans.
Excerpts from an interview:
Do you miss Indian food in London?
Oh, the list is very long! There’s so much variety in Indian cuisine that’s made back home in Kolkata. Two things that I miss the most are freshwater fish like Rohu or Katla which we don’t get in London and the smoked, barbecued dishes —all kinds of kebabs that we do so beautifully in my family. I really wish to have a tandoor here!
How do you approach sustainability in your restaurant?
I have a very strict philosophy about using fresh, local produce at the restaurant. I do not fly in any ingredients from India; we use organic vegetables and fruits available locally in Britain, so the carbon footprint on my menu is quite low.
We make bhegetable chops a la Bangali style with fresh vegetables found in the season; we make misti kumro delicacies over the pumpkin season that are quite a hit. It’s impossible to do without the authentic Indian spices and masalas to bring in the flavours, so I get those shipped from India. However, they don’t come packed in tonnes of plastic and are less disruptive to the environment.
What are your thoughts on the evolving food scene in Kolkata?
There seems to be a shift in what people are doing and eating. It’s at times painful to see what's happening in Kolkata— the change in technology and the rise of fusion and other trendy food concepts is causing many old food establishments to just disappear. While places like Peter Cat and Flurry’s are still around, they have changed to quite an extent.
For me, Calcutta and its food that I loved, is changing rapidly. While change is inevitable, I just hope that in the next 10 years, iconic places that Kolkata is well-known for, such as Aminia, Nizam's, Arsalan, and Kasturi don’t shut down. In the face of modern food concepts such as Instagrammable restaurants and fusion foods, traditional old-timers that serve authentic Bengali cuisine should not lose out.
What is your take on modern progressive Indian food?
It's interesting to see how people are using their creativity and putting in a lot of intellect into the food they are cooking. It's a fascinating process, however, it is not the kind of food I would like to eat or cook.
The progressive style of cooking is great to celebrate creativity by giving food a different look and feel. It’s important to realise that this style of food should not be made to make Indian food more acceptable outside India and to please the foreign palate.
What does cultural appropriation mean to you?
The thing with cultural appropriation is that when the dominant culture takes away from the minority culture, something intrinsically valuable to them is lost. My position on cultural appropriation is simple—I will not allow anyone to eat my food if they have not learned to respect me. You cannot take my food if you don't honour me. One needs to understand why food is sacred and what is it that you're giving back to the communities.
You started a movement with all-female team to discuss deeper societal issues, how do you plan to take this ahead?
I don’t see the restaurant just as a business but as a means to empower people and women to be specific. I am interested in using food as a tool to seek justice for several issues that start within the food industry but go deeper. And, no not because I'm a lawyer, but this is my driving ambition and desire. Be it for the cause of home chefs, who are just disregarded for cooking, or women who have to sell their bodies to survive; I want to use the restaurant, my position of strength in the food industry to discuss these. It bothers me to see how people discriminate based on faith, gender, sexuality, educational qualification or even colour.
I feel that change can only happen when you gather enough voices. It is why social media is very important for me. I urge modern chefs to talk about these issues, use their social media platforms to address these issues and talk about justice. The fact that people look up to you, and respect what you're doing, gives you a moral duty to talk about things that are important. It’s not enough to sit there and just enjoy the fame and money and not actually give back to the community. Food is about politics, who eats, who doesn’t; when they eat, how they eat - it’s deeper than what it looks like.
Food trends to watch out for?
The trend towards more plant-based cuisine is a positive one, although it should not be taken to an extreme, and should not become a religion. Secondly, the movement towards sustainability, and traceability, so you can trace farm to fork and understand where your food comes from. In the rush of chasing sustainable and organic food trends, we should not ignore the conditions that are required to chase these trends.
I would like to see who is picking my raspberries, what are the working conditions, and how are the wages? While everyone wants to save a quick buck, it doesn’t always benefit the farmer or the resources used. For instance, you can buy cheap cashew nuts over expensive ones, but how many of us care to lend a thought to the fact that the farmer’s hands who work with cashew nuts are treated with acid? It's not good enough to know that you are encouraging organic or veganism as a trend, what’s important is to understand the entire cycle and then endorse it.
One cooking technique that can’t be learnt from YouTube?
The art of caramelising onions! It’s an art that requires a lot of time and practice and often umpteen cooking disasters. Slowly caramelised onions have an amazing depth of flavour, but they require slow and steady heat to achieve the perfect amount of crispiness without getting burnt.