Anyone that knows Asma Khan knows that she's not one to mince words. That could be why it becomes hard to focus on all the details of the conversation you're having with her. Because the last thing she said, hit you so hard, it becomes impossible to shake off. "Our [Indian] food is not the most attractive, I agree. Our garnishes are limiting and there are no edible flowers and micro-greens to cover up the greys and browns below," she poignantly shares, leaving me a little tongue-tied on our WhatsApp call.
Khan is right when she says that the new movement in Indian food – both here and abroad – is underpinned by a desire to sanitise it. "The progression of what is happening with Indian food is, for me, troublesome. People seem to be experimenting heavily with it, using influences from different cuisines. And there's nothing wrong with that, but when these kinds of twists on Indian food are celebrated, others come up with photocopies of it," she shares, explaining how the image of Indian food faces the possibility of becoming contorted and losing its narrative, albeit unintentionally. "That's why I don't need to put vodka and oysters in my puchka or truffle oil on my naan," she quips.
Asma Khan with her team at the restaurant
The Indian-born British chef, restaurateur and cookbook author – who rose to fame significantly after being featured on the original Netflix documentary series, Chef's Table – is a force to be reckoned with. And perhaps what makes Khan a trailblazer, more than here mere conviction (or the fact that she's managed to achieve what she has with an all-women's team in a male-dominated industry), is her sheer ability to call a spade a spade.
Portrait of a (determined) lady
But has a brazen attitude and an unapologetic avatar on social media, that doesn't euphemize while calling out the misogyny in the FB industry in the UK, the flawed and somewhat lopsided structure of highly regarded culinary awards and the persistent elitism in the food biz, made things difficult for the Brown, Muslim, Female chef? "No, surprisingly," she retorts. It has, though.
Last year, as Khan's business grew, she and her team decided that their 56-seater diner in SoHo wasn't enough. Finding a new space was tricky and painstaking, as she narrates one incident of locking a place and then, losing it because of objections raised by another restaurant owner in the same building complex. The loan she sourced from a bank was rebuked and Khan had to dip into her own savings to fund the relocation. Earlier this year, they finally re-opened in Covent Garden, a tory neighbourhood in London's West End, and a much bigger space than the one she had lost. In a strange way, the chef says, the pandemic worked in her favour. "It took Coronavirus for an outsider like me to finally find a space," she laments, adding how she had to point out to landlords that they had already lost too much money to let casual racism come in the way of business.
It must be her never-back-down attitude that helped Khan grow from the organizer of a small and private supper club in her home in 2012, to opening The Darjeeling Express – her restaurant run by an all-women's team comprising Asian immigrants – in SoHo in 2017, to finally finding a luxe brick-and-mortar home in her current 120-seater diner that began with tasting menus as the shadow of pandemic continued to loom large.
Of stories behind the food
But if Khan's constitution is that of a complex demagogue fortified by a vocal and politically charged temperament, her food is just as inversely simple. Rooted in the teachings of her mother, aunts and grandmother, the offerings at The Darjeeling Express combine Bengali, Bengali-Muslim (yes, they're two different things) and Awadhi influences that imbue the no-frills simplicity of home-cooked food. Think luchi aloo dom, Kolkata style puchka, biryani and kababs, alongside slightly reworked dishes like kheema and aloo toasties and aloo paratha that have been designed to fit their deli menu.
Speaking about how her food has evolved, she tells us, "Strangely enough, when the people that ate at my supper clubs in my house, come to the restaurant, they say that all the food tastes just the way they remember it. But I have now begun introducing the food that is intrinsic to other members of the team, too. For example, at Covent Garden we did a tasting menu called, From Calcutta to Darjeeling, which had things like momos." And yet, for Khan, the most significant change has occurred in terms of her as the person writing a new story – on behalf of women, on behalf of immigrants and on behalf of every person that has been subjected to cruel othering, because of their gender or the colour of their skin.
She echoes this when she says, "I am more of a storyteller and less of a cook. Do you remember being told stories while being fed as a kid? This is before the time of television and I remember it clearly. We would be made to sit on a gadda, the food would be fed very lovingly, by hand, and we'd be told stories. Now, I have evolved back to that, where I tell my diners all the stories about the dishes. Be it about the exploitation of the opium trade that led to the discovery of poppy seeds or posto as a food item or how widows in Bengal can't have hing (asafetida). Neither of which I use, by the way."
We are what we eat
This comes through in Khan's menu that is inspired heavily by what she ate while growing up. And finds expression in her upcoming book, too, called Ammu (Ebury Books) which is set to release in March, next year. "Cooking is a skill. It is an art. And cooking for me is ibadat (worship). It is a way of communicating love. It is the most intimate way of embracing someone when you feed them. And the most expensive ingredient that you're putting in that dish, that you are giving them, is your time. But unfortunately, nobody thanked our mothers and grandmothers for the waqt they put into their food. Because of that, people like me have to continue explaining to others why food is honourable."
Khan's continued efforts on putting Indian food on the global map and giving voice to the women behind it, found a new outlet when she starred on the Netflix show. She remembers receiving a mail from the producer of Chef's Table, Brian McGinn and writing it off as a hoax. "It all moved so fast, and they were incredible because I requested to not be scripted and they complied. They allowed me to tell my story and no questions were asked. In fact, the services that you see in the scenes, are live services because I couldn't afford to cancel tables at the time," she recalls, adding that she neither overthought it nor spent time fretting about what to say. "I wasn't trying to portray anything else apart from who I was."
It is this unfiltered honesty, her ability to weave her own history, the teachings from her predecessors and her identity into the food she offers that has helped Khan stand out so significantly. Whether it's the offerings of The Darjeeling Express or Khan's overall persona, they're both, without a doubt, tied to her roots. Because in the end, we are all, indeed, what we eat.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.