Photograph: Urszula Soltys
British-Indian chef Asma Khan has taken Indian hospitality to London with her restaurant Darjeeling Express, taken her own gender equality activism out into the world in countless little ways, and created meaningful new opportunities for women.
The British took many things Indian back home with them, not least their love for Indian food. In London, desi khaana, in the last decade, has found a new custodian, Asma Khan. If there’s one thing you should eat at her restaurant Darjeeling Express, last sited in Covent Garden, people who know food say, it is the biryani. When Asma opens up a dum biryani in full view of her guests for the evening, they say, the aroma that comes up is the smell of history, the scent of the spice trade, the fragrance of India.
Front of house, Asma is hostess and house mother, and every diner is made to feel like a guest in her home. But her heart lives in the kitchen with her squad, women alongside whom she has lived many lifetimes in a decade.
From Kolkata to Darjeeling Express
Asma’s story begins in Kolkata, where her birth as a second daughter brought tears to her mother’s eyes, tears she had vowed to brush away. It skips past her days as a self-willed child, her time in college – because her ‘wild’ reputation stymied all the usual marriage proposals – and her marriage to Mushtaq, an academic. They moved to Cambridge in the UK in 1991, and then to London in 1996, where she graduated with a PhD in British constitutional law in 2012 from King’s College London.
In the UK, time stood still. Asma found herself very alone in a foreign land. Her husband was teaching all the time, and she spent vast amounts of time missing home. She had never really learnt to cook, but she yearned for the food of her childhood. She reveals in the Chef’s Table episode about her journey, aired in February 2019, that, seeing the “huge emptiness in my soul,” her mother, grandmother, aunts and the family cook Haji Saheb generously passed on to her a legacy of otherwise well-guarded signature dishes on an extended trip back to India.
She returned to the UK rejuvenated. She started cooking, she began inviting other South Asian women, most of them nannies and housekeepers – like her, strangers in a foreign land – home to tea. They came more often; they became like her sisters. They remain her squad.
They were by her side when she started hosting supper clubs in her home in 2012. She cooked, they helped her prep. The meals were hugely popular, so popular that her sons began to find it difficult to have sometimes upto 40 people in the house. She stopped because she did not want them to be uncomfortable in their own home. But the urge to cook, to feed, could not be contained, so she started doing pop-ups in pubs and restaurants with her sisterhood. It was not an easy transition for home cooks, but they slowly got it all under control. They came into their own. Together, they set up Darjeeling Express in 2017, first in Soho, then in Covent Garden. As we go to press, the restaurant website reveals that they are looking for a new location.
Wherever, whenever it opens again, the food will be, as always, an invitation to step into Asma’s world – and that of the women she has journeyed with thus far.
A Place At The Global Table
In offering home-style, very personally envisioned food, Darjeeling Express is proudly, bravely very different from Indian restaurants in the UK. The food ranges from the street food of Kolkata to the food of Asma’s family’s royal lineage. When it comes to the table, she will tell you about each dish, its place in Indian history, her memories of it in her own life. The menu is a vindication of her belief that the food she puts on the table has its place on the London food scene. “I never doubted the power of home food,” she says matter-of-factly. “I knew that I would be the outsider and unusual in the kind of menu I had, but I had seen the response when I had hosted supper clubs in my own house. People loved tasting food that they could have only gotten if they were invited into a person’s home in India. The food in Indian restaurants at that time was mostly generic and very similar. I was very confident that cuisine that has been passed on from family generations was good enough to be on the world scene.” As with the supper clubs, she knew that the food would be a bridge to Indian culture for all who dined at her table. “Food can connect people and it becomes even more significant when you are communicating with people who are not from your culture,” she avers. “It is a very powerful way to introduce people to not only who you are but also where you come from and the ethos and culture of that place.”
A Woman For Women…
In establishing the only female-founded, all-female kitchen in the world, offering the Darjeeling Express space free to other women to run pop-ups on Sundays, her nonprofit Second Daughters Fund (see below), and training young women – survivors of ISIS slavery – at a cafe in a Yazidi refugee camp in Iraq in 2019 as part of her commitment to empowering women in societies in conflict, Asma is a firm believer in sending the elevator back down for other women. Her mother before her had run a catering business in Kolkata, hiring women to help her who had been abandoned by their husbands and families. “My dream is for all women to feel that they have a network of empathetic women who will applaud their success and be the shoulder on which they can lean in difficult times,” Asma reiterates. “I cannot be free and enjoy my freedom if I know women are in chains. It is by liberating them that I become free. This should be the ethos of every woman in a position of power and privilege.”
At Darjeeling Express, she has been adamant that she would share the limelight with the other women in her life. The restaurant is theirs as much as hers. Together, they had outgrown their first space in Soho, where they had worked in an open kitchen. In Covent Garden, although the restaurant was always full, her squad was out of sight in a basement kitchen. Asma has always wanted diners to see “the hands that cooked the food”, and she found this invisibility unacceptable. In fact, of all the episodes of Chef’s Table, hers is the only one that names each member of her team – Asha Pradhan and Shanta Awale from India; Uma Gurung, Nauli Tamang and Anita Gurung from Nepal. In its next space, the restaurant will once again include an open kitchen so that people can see them all – it is one of the principal reasons for the move. Asma wants Darjeeling Express to be an oasis for women, And it will be: she hopes to invite more women – many who have been left unemployed by the pandemic – to join her.
Asma For Second Daughters
Part of Asma’s commitment to bettering the lot of women has resulted in her charity for second daughters like herself. “The attitude towards second daughters is changing at a very slow rate,” she points out. “The discrimination in families happens behind closed doors, and girls often do not want to criticise their own families. The charity has, unfortunately, not been able to do a lot of work over the pandemic period, and we are hoping to restart now that it is possible to travel. We continued to send celebratory packs to families of second daughters, as many of them do not celebrate the birth of girls. Although this is purely symbolic, it is a declaration of equality where two genders are celebrated equally. I use the platform of the charity to communicate injustice when the family makes them feel inferior. It is damaging to their second daughter and leaves a lifelong scar on her.”
Asma recently released her second book, Ammu: Indian Home-Cooking to Nourish the Soul, written through the COVID-19 pandemic, and she hopes to write more. The journey thus far has been long and tumultuous. “There have been many hurdles and unexpected challenges like the pandemic. The learning curve was understanding that I had to stay focused on the end goal. Just as day follows night, the darkness would not be continuous and I had to be prepared for the day when I could cook again and be with my team. I could not lose heart as this would impact not just me but my entire team. This is the lesson I had to go back to when I could only open 10 days in my new location and we had to close again. After weeks of refurbishment and planning, we were unable to operate. It’s not always easy and, of course, there have been days when I felt overwhelmed and defeated but I picked myself up each time.”
The emotion that best captures life at the moment is “Gratitude, because I know how hard women work and it is often the case that the credit for the work they do is taken by others and they never get their moment on the stage; very often they do not get the same pay as men.” She adds, “I feel very grateful that I was able to get a platform by doing something that has always been seen as a domestic chore.”
To Help Every Woman Fly Off The Mountain
Asma’s is a name to be reckoned with in the world today, not just in the arena of food, but also as a gender equality activist. “It is very humbling; at times, it feels so unreal and overwhelming when people recognise me from different parts of the world and in random places. I believe that, if you start small and dream big, your dreams will come true if you stay on the right side of history and appreciate the work and value of the people who work with you. I feel the reason everyone knows my name is because I have been unafraid to stand up to injustice and discrimination. It is not me but the values that I fight for that should be in the limelight.”
She hopes to set up a mentoring programme for future female leaders. “Of course, the restaurant is still a very important part of my journey, and I would like to support women who want to open food businesses and restaurants around the world because this is the greatest legacy we can leave behind to inspire the next generation of women.”
“I FEEL THE REASON EVERYONE KNOWS MY NAME IS BECAUSE I HAVE BEEN UNAFRAID TO STAND UP TO INJUSTICE AND DISCRIMINATION”
And Asma Khan, who has wiped every tear from her mother’s eye in her pride over her daughter’s success, wants every woman to find her chosen place in the world. “The one thing that holds so many of us back is confidence. For many, this is because of how our birth was received by our family; we always feel we need the validation of our loved ones and society before we can do anything. This limits the path we take. It is very important that all of us overcome the fear of failure and the fear of not seeing someone who speaks or looks like you doing what you want to do. You can become that person for someone else. I think that should drive you to break the barriers and go on paths that no one has been on. This will lead you to the edge of the mountain where the belief that you will be victorious gives you the courage to know that you will fly off the edge.”
Also Read: With Love For India: Julie Kagti, Founder of Curtain Call Adventures