There’s something about Asma Khan: The woman behind the popular Darjeeling Express in London

  • Khan opened Darjeeling Express in 2017, employing a team of women immigrants with no professional training

  • Her restaurant is making waves for the food, for her all-women team, and for opening up the kitchen to aspiring chefs who want to train

  • This year, she became the first British chef to be profiled on Netflix show Chefs Table

There’s something extremely endearing about Asma Khan. It could be the passion with which she talks about uplifting women or the pain in her voice when discussing how the Partition destroyed food memories. It could be her love for her team, members of whom she talks about with pride and insists on them sharing a podium with her. It could be the confidence with which she speaks her mind, unconcerned about political correctness.

“Don’t see me with your biases. Show me a box big enough that you can put me in.”

“British people don’t know how to make kitchens.”

“People get emotional eating my food. Bengalis cry from the moment they enter till they leave.”

“Food reviews shouldn't be a display of your English skills. It should be about information.”

“I had to work only with women. I can’t answer gadha questions male chefs who are taught in culinary school ask about weights and measurements.”

“I’m very cool. I am a middle-aged overweight housewife and cool. It’s never too late to give up hope.”

And finally, “I’m very good at convincing people.”

 There’s something about Asma Khan: The woman behind the popular Darjeeling Express in London

Asma Khan. Image courtesy of Asma Khan

The statement is definitely true given how Khan’s Darjeeling Express in London is convincing people there’s more to Indian food than naan and tikka masala.

Asma Khan grew up in Calcutta, a descendant of the Rajput tribe that her father called ‘impoverished aristocrats’ and Bengali royal families (on her mother’s side). It’s why her food today is a mix of Mughal cuisine of the royals of Bengal and Rajputana food from the Nizams. “The food that was served on my parent’s table was pre-Partition food… something people no longer eat,” she says. “In the pain of what we lost, food took a battering. We never recovered from ’47.”

Khan moved to the United Kingdom in 1991 after her marriage, first Cambridge and then London. In London, she decided to study “so people could think I was smart”. She did a PhD in Constitutional Law, with a thesis on the relationship between church and state.

To deal with homesickness, she turned to food. She started a supper club in her home. “I created the shahi dawat that I imagined my family would have done. An average menu had kebabs, biryani, rezala, chicken chaap, sheermal and different halwas,” she says. She did this for three years taking the help of other Indian immigrants she met. One example is Kalpana Sunder, a nanny who would come to her house to have chai and watch Zee TV and soon became the first member of Khan’s team. Khan did the supper clubs when her husband was away. He only found out because her children complained to her father that the ‘mama is always feeding strangers and she tells us to stay in our room’. She moved the concept to a Soho pub, where a review by noted critic Faye Mashler got her a buzz of popularity. “That day the world changed for me. I knew I was going to make it.”

Khan opened Darjeeling Express in 2017, employing a team of women immigrants with no professional training. Her restaurant is making waves for the food, for her all-women team, and for opening up the kitchen (every Sunday) to aspiring chefs who want to train, and host supper clubs. It also champions sustainability – there’s no single-use plastic, food wastage is minimal and they undersell food. Part of the proceeds from Darjeeling Express goes to Khan’s Second Daughters charity. In 2018, she published a cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen. This year, she became the first British chef to be profiled on Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

In Mumbai recently for a pop-up as a part of the food platform Culinary Culture, she spoke about using food for politics, the importance of telling her story and why she travels with her team.

Excerpts from an interview:

How did Netflix’s Chef’s Table impact your life, and the restaurant?

I realised being on the show could allow me to be the face of change where I talk about immigration and ask for our women to be noticed. Women, often nameless and faceless, are the custodians of recipes and yet, we don’t honour them. I wanted to tell the story of all women so that the generation after me will never take my food for granted.

The show has had a significant impact. It helped me realise that all inequalities and the deep damage that patriarchy does – robbing their aspirations and identity – wasn’t restricted to South Asia. I got messages from Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, from the Middle East, women from every kind of culture where the birth of girls is not seen as something positive. They wrote in because they connected with what I said. I personally wrote back to each of them.

It’s something you do on social media too, respond to people, talking to them about their lives…

Change can only happen by people conversing and deciding to join hands, join resources and raise voices together. This is how we break down the patriarchy. I’m not interested in breaking the glass ceiling; I want to bring down the whole edifice. This can only happen when you have a big enough movement and enough voices. It is why social media is very important for me. It’s also about being available to those who want to talk to me, and responding to people who are in pain. I give all kinds of advice. I’m willing to give the time to people – it could be just a few moments but, it can be life-changing for the person who is struggling. Many people come back to me saying, ‘what you said made a difference to me’. I need to know I’ve tried. It’s what makes life worth living. If all of us move forward together, then that is progress.

You don’t call yourself a feminist even though you are one.

It’s complicated. I have difficulty with a lot of white feminists who have no space on their platform for someone like me. They cannot get it. I do not need to burn my culture to prove to you that I’m progressive. I believe in staying within your culture, keeping your roots strong, and getting rid of things holding you back. This is really about the fact that you do not walk on the dreams of others. Give everybody a chance to fly. I never like to put labels on women or on myself.

It's very important that the change in attitude has to come from both sides. I do a lot of work in the community, telling women that you’re not just here to live for the success of your husband and children. What is your story? If you don't have a story, start writing it now.

You don’t like labels but you often call yourself a warrior?

It is about my family’s identity, where I come from. But, I also use warrior in the way that you and I understand the word: as a fighter. My fight is for women, the silent, weak, destitute, poor and hungry. I’m very fortunate to have this platform to speak for the weak, and those who will never make it on stage. I can fight for others as I am in a position of strength – I am successful, I own my business, I have an all-female team who adore me and we're very close.

Today, it was wonderful to have Kalpana and Rashmi [two women from her team] on stage. They grew up in this city and now they’ve come back and are staying at the Taj! I am so excited watching this happen for them. I call myself a warrior on every level, fighting for something trivial to fighting stupid male chefs who are racist. I will not let racism and sexism pass. I will always call it out.

I opened a restaurant in the heart of London with home cooks selling home-style food. No one had done that before. I didn’t think for a second that it would fail. You have to believe. I do things my way and I know I will be successful. I didn’t do anything to please others.

People see me I think, ‘you are very unusual’. No, a lot of women are like me. You just don’t know them. I’m normal.

You started a restaurant to change people’s perceptions of Indian food. Is that happening?

People’s ideas about Indian food are changing. It hasn’t happened because Indian chefs are cooking authentic food but because the audience has changed. It is sad that this change in the perception of Indian food is happening because of the white man.

I’m very flexible in my restaurant. In the end, if I think that too many people are crying over something, I’ll just give it to them. People come and cry about things, ask for certain food or why biryani is not on the menu. I tell everybody, ‘this is not tomar sasurbari (your father-in-laws home). It’s my restaurant.’

I don’t see the restaurant as a business. It’s a platform for me to tell my story and that of my women. Yes, money is important. I don’t dismiss it as irrelevant. It is a privilege. I have been blessed with the opportunity to actually be free. I can fly wherever I want to go, do what I want to do. I do not need to oblige anyone or please anyone.

What’s next for Asma Khan?

I want to use my experience to open restaurants and cafe in places where women need to heal. At 50, I decided it was time to do something else with my life. I celebrated it by setting up a café in a refugee camp in northern Iraq that employs Yazidi women. One of the women – she became my head chef – had been sold seven times and stuttered because of the trauma she faced. Before I left, she told me that working at the café made her feel purified. There is no accolade or money that can compare to what I felt that day. This is not a business, it’s about helping people.

I’m not an idealist. I will not die until I change the lives of women who will have crawled through life. I cannot enjoy my freedom if I know people around me are in chains.

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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2019 15:26:27 IST