Slurrp Exclusive – Asma Khan On Her Game Changing All Woman Kitchen And Her Love For Food
Updated : June 06, 2022 04:06 IST
Asma says that in Darjeeling Express I see all these woman cook like my aunts do at my home.
It’s not possible that if you love exploring culinary flavors and you have not heard of Asma Khan. This Kolkata born and bred British chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, once a law student, today happens to be the most acclaimed name in the culinary world. Her restaurants Darjeeling Express in London is not just famous for its food but also for many other reasons. With her formative years in Kolkata, she still years for a “bhad er cha” (khullad tea) from the city. She has been a pioneer to giving creating a safe space for many women by hiring an all-women staff. Lockdown might not have been kind but her restaurant in a new address in London in Covent Garden still happens to be the favorite if who’s who.
In a chit chat with Slurrp Asma opened her heart on her love for Kolkata and culture, art and food of this land and also how the stories of her forefathers have stayed with her and shaped her. Trust us when we say it’s not that easy-to-get table last-minute table isn’t going to be easy.
You grew up in a house that's full of rich of art culture heritage Tell us something about the food scene when you grew up in your house?
We as a family were stating at Bright street, Kolkata, and believe you me when I say this that the entertainment of our time was a trip to Kwality’s or Skyroom. Thankfully there was no mobile, TV and food was our center focus. Family life was around the table where we got to talk with each other. As one meal finished the conversation jumped to what are we eating in the next meal. What’s gonna be there for breakfast from the leftovers, bhuna ghost, aloo ka subzi, etc. Most of the time someone or the other was visiting o staying with you. Winter being the wedding season, and with so many of us at home there were conversations, gossips and so much connect that I could see. No one was scrolling phones, you are discussing life, discussing politics. Every family that I knew in Kolkata food was the centre focus for them. Our dining table as a meeting ground of different conversation, community, faith, and more, gathering were around food. Food was part of life not just nourishment. It was my greatest education eating with others discussing food that’s when I saw the link between food and stories.
You’re known for breaking into a largely male-dominated industry. What are some challenges you had to overcome during the journey?
Actually, even today to my surprise I never felt that that that kind of food that I cook from home even has any future and that even it will be accepted in the in the hospitality world. I became in my own space of security, large platters and so on. Building up a restaurant was not something I never thought would happen. But when it happened, I knew it was so different and I can proudly say that mine is an all-female Indian restaurant in the world serving food at the price range and location we have. What I figured was that the be it colour of my skin or even my faith that did not make much difference but it was my kitchen what was different. I hope in my lifetime I can see other women come through to surpass my achievement and my story is no longer that unusual. Too many women carry the insecurity as an unseen burden. Only few organizations like Suruchi in Kolata that’s run by the All Bengal Women's Union and Zaika e Nizamuddin in Delhi a women self-help group who prepare small batch food exist. I hope in my lifetime I can see other women come through to surpass my achievement and my story is not unusual.
When was the first time you felt noticed?
Food media dominated by white men, there was no-one looked at me. But I clearly remember the date when I first so called got my break. It was 13th January 2013, when I was asked to do a popup; which was then an unheard concept by Vivek Singh, Executive Chef Cinnamon club, a posh restaurant in London. He had tasted my biryani at the supper club that I used to host. Wearing salwar kameez, and sari and so my woman army and myself prepared Biriyani and chicken chaap, momos, shammi kebab. That was the turning point.
Tell us something about your all woman kitchen army.
We often feel that woman lack power. Even in the deepest of lockdown it was these woman who had me gather myself and come back. Though we have not been professionally trained, but that rarely makes a difference. All these woman kitchen come with experiences of what they cook at home. Can I ask for anything better? They add the secret ingredient: love, that makes all the difference. Half the woman in my kirchen are veg but they all cook with us and there’s a great great pride in the work they do. No walls no separation, we work like a family. Sense of duty. Once of staff Uma on a fully over loaded festival day once said to me “Yeh kitchen mera mandir , aap devi hai hu kisko chodh ke jayengge“. It’s so satisfying to see woman go on this journey to of empowerment.
In Darjeeling Express I see all these woman cook like my aunts do at my home in the family did and I have made sure there’s no division and negativity.
What does it take to stay up and ahead in the food game when there’s so much competition?
I Don’t see any one next to me as competition. I genuinely don’t look on my left and right. I always take my team and I know I am going to be victorious. I never indulge into small talks. Wherever possible I help, never went into the idea of competing. I believe that you will become something. Just like my finger prints I know I am unique. It’s my race I am winning. I am proud of my faith and culture. I can choose what I want to have and not have. I never felkt the need to fit into Western idea if white feminism. My food and my faith and my traditions are what I love the most.
In an interview once you had said that Fay Maschler (journalist) changed your life. Why?
Yes, I did. She happens to restaurant critic of London's Evening Standard newspaper. I was doing a Pop-up in a bar in SOHO and she came on her 70th birthday for dinner. Being a restaurant critic is was very unlikely of her to do the pop-up review which she did. That gave me much affection and love. It was all of them that I became famous, kismet, good luck.
What is it one dish no one should miss when they're visiting Darjeeling Express?
Though Darjeeling Express boasts of many of its dishes but I would say you should surely try the Kolkata biryani, chicken chaap, luchi-aloor dum and the Phuckas.
We discourage from waiting, book a table in advance. Lunch time you can walk in but dinner it’s almost impossible. Everybody gets a table and we try to accommodate as many as possible.
What are those three ingredients that you can’t do without in your kitchen?
I absolutely vouch for my Sukha laal mirch teekha wala, Cumin and Paanch Phoren (fie spice mix).
What brings you to India this time?
I came to do a film with Yes chef (an online portal for best chefs from around the world). I I had told them that if u want to learn about me and the food of Kolkata, then you have come to the city where I can show you the food and teach my favourite phoolkopi singara, kheer with jaggery (nolen gur), rice.
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