Asma Khan moved to the UK in 1991 to do a PhD in law, which she did complete. Back then, she confesses, she couldn’t even boil an egg. Today, she has been named one of the top 100 women in hospitality in the UK. A kitchen pop up she initiated is now one of the most coveted restaurants, Darjeeling Express. She runs an all female-kitchen with staff who haven’t trained professionally in food but are home cooks, is an enthusiastic campaigner for the Second Daughter Foundation, and walks the talk as far as female empowerment is concerned.

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SheThePeople.TV spoke with her about her leap of faith from law to food, what it takes to run an all-woman kitchen and why she finds identity and belonging in the flavours of food.

I cooked to soothe my soul to remind myself of my Ammu and my home. Then I discovered cooking gave me so much satisfaction- not the cooking so much – I loved feeding people! -Asma Khan

Tell us something about your childhood, how important was food when you were growing up, what are your favourite food memories?

Like most South Asian families – food was always the centre of any gathering. I spent most of my childhood in Calcutta – In the same city as my grandparents and extended family. There were frequent “dawaats” or feasts and my favourite had to be the meals prepared by my Hyderabadi grand-aunt Farzana Chachi whose signature dish Pattar ka Gosht (slivers of marinated meat cooked on a hot stone) was something I always looked forward to!

You believe that cooking can be a way of providing stability for those who have been uprooted. Did you feel this sense of being uprooted when you came to the UK, did cooking or food provide you the stability you speak of at that time? 

Absolutely – I felt lost, rootless and felt I was drifting through the days when I moved to the UK. This feeling of incompleteness changed when I learnt to cook – my kitchen had the aromas of home and it also was a route to making new friends as I was able to invite people home for a meal.

Asma Khan

Darjeeling Express began as a supper club in your home, then went on to be a pop up at Soho which had top food critic Faye Maschler name it as one of the 15 best London restaurants of 2015. Tell us how did a supper club and a pop up move into a proper food business, what were the learnings and challenges on the way.

The jump from a supper club hosted at home to the PopUp at the pub in Soho was a very big jump – a supper club was infrequent and a menu planned in advance and the number of guests was fixed. On the day – all I had to do was to cook and serve – all the supper club guests ate the same food at the same time – so very similar to a large party or dawaat at home. At the PopUp we had to serve separate tables from a menu and I had no idea how to organise that- and was grateful that an experienced restauranteur Pervin Todiwala came into the pub and taught me how to allocate tables for service and how to run a pass! Moving to my own restaurant was less of a learning curve as service was similar to the PopUp.

Your website tells us that you didn’t know how to boil an egg when you moved to the UK in 1991. What was the trigger point that made you want to explore food as a calling?

 I realised very soon after I moved to England that I had to make this my “home” and I would have to accept that I would be miles away from my loved ones-the pre-Whatsapp, Skype, Viber days was really hard- I spoke to my parents every Sunday- a call that was expensive and often very rushed. I cooked to soothe my soul to remind myself of my Ammu and my home. Then I discovered cooking gave me so much satisfaction- not the cooking so much- I loved feeding people!

You have a PhD in law. How difficult was it to abandon law which you had trained and qualified in to take this leap of faith into the culinary world, with absolutely no training in it? Did you have any apprehensions?

I had no fears. I knew cooking was my calling. I had total faith this was the right path for me.

Do you think not being formally trained in cooking has been an advantage of sorts for you? I also read that your kitchen has employed all women, and that too women from South Asia who are not professionally trained? Tell us the thought process behind this strategy.

Having an all-female kitchen of home cooks was not a strategic decision- the food business grew organically from my home and many of the chefs working for me today were nannies I had met in my kids’ school. They came to help me in supper clubs and they followed me to the PopUp and now the restaurant. We became a team- it was the most natural process.

Many of the chefs working for me today were nannies I had met in my kids’ school. They came to help me in supper clubs and they followed me to the PopUp and now the restaurant.

In 1993 you travelled back to your ancestral kitchens to learn more about the traditional recipes and way of cooking, tell us about this journey, where did you go, how did you unearth the recipes, how long did the process take and what were your primary learnings?

Surprisingly it took me two summer vacations to learn how to cook everything I wanted to learn. I guess I “knew” how many of the dishes were made as I would spend so much time in the kitchen with my mother who ran a large and very successful catering business in Calcutta. I think just being with my mother I learnt how to plan and organise a large dinner or wedding feast. Once I watched the dishes being prepared with the aim to cook it in England – I learnt very quickly. It was Calcutta and Aligarh where I learnt to cook.

Asma Khan
Asma Khan with Darjeeling Express’ Kitchen Team, Picture credit: darjeeling-express.com

How does the confluence of your Bengali and Rajasthani heritage play out in the food you cook?

My father is a Rajput Muslim where many of the dishes have Mughlai spicing or cooking techniques- very similar to the Bengali Mughlai food cooked in my mother’s family. So although the dishes of both sides of the family were very different. The techniques were very similar.

Was there a process of adapting some of these traditional recipes to modern tastes and health concerns, and how were you able to balance taste and flavour with these requirements?

I do not change the recipes for health or western aesthetics. I cook authentic recipes and it is a misconception that all our food is drowned in ghee and cream – that is what you see in the adaptation in some restaurants in the UK who devised a style of cooking that they thought was suitable to British tastes – those dishes I find unhealthy and heavy. A dish like Chicken Chaap, Khare Masale ka Gosht or Shammi Kabab should stay true to what is the original authentic recipe. I do not tweak to please people on low-fat diets!

Being named as one of the 100 most influential women in UK hospitality list, did you see that coming, what was your reaction when you heard it first, and do you feel the pressure stronger now that you’re on that list?

I was really happy and also very humbled as there were women on that list who I admired and looked up to. No I do not feel pressure- my belief is that everything is temporary- fame and honour are passing things. I stay rooted to my traditions and I am grateful for the upbringing I had- I know in the end I will be judged on the good I have done in my life.

I stay rooted to my traditions and I am grateful for the upbringing I had- I know in the end I will be judged on the good I have done in my life.

What is the Second Daughter Trust all about, and what is it that makes you feel so strongly about it that a certain percentage of your proceeds go to it? What are the prejudices you feel that women from South Asian families still need to battle in order to come into their own?

We donated informally since our early days to educate second daughters born in deprived families and celebrate the birth of a second girl- we are very close to setting up the UK-based charity which will allow us to raise money and awareness about gender discrimination in many Indian families. The birth of a first daughter is seen as bad luck- the birth of a second is lamented as a calamity. The preference for a male child and the exorbitant cost to get a girl married due to the terrible tradition of dowry makes the birth of girls “unwanted”- we hope to raise awareness about issues linked to this prejudice.

Asma Khan
Asma’s Indian Kitchen, Picture Credit: amazon.co.uk

And finally, your cookbook is due out soon. What made you write this cookbook, and how important do you think cookbooks are in documenting oral and cultural narratives via the medium of food.

My cookbook “Asma’s Indian Kitchen” will be available from 4th October. I was initially really worried that I would struggle to write recipes that I knew from memory, but the recipes were like lyrics of a well-loved song- once I started writing the recipe- it all came back easily! The book has a mix of Mughlai recipes and some classic home comfort dishes. I have also explained techniques on how to get the best out of spices and suggestions on how to plan a feast- from a feast for two to a large family gathering.

Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV

Feature image credit: Asian women of achievement/Twitter

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