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  • Writer's pictureVernika Awal

The custodians of our food are home cooks and women’: Asma Khan on Ammu, Darjeeling Express and more

From taking on the dominance of men in the commercial kitchen, to breaking the stereotype of Indian food being masked with theatrics, the indomitable Asma Khan narrates her story.

Ammu: Indian Home-cooking to Nourish Your Soul was recently judged the Food Book of the Year, 2022 by The Sunday Times in the UK. Penned by the indomitable Asma Khan, the book is a journey into reckoning, and the coming of age of the Indian cuisine in front of the entire world. Speaking to Vernika Awal, Deputy Editor, Food and Drink at TravelDrine, Khan catches up on the emotions behind the book, why she would rather be a ‘cook’ than a ‘chef’, meeting Malala, remembering and honouring her roots, and calling out the hypocrisy of a lopsided industry. Edited excerpts from our conversation follow.

On ‘Ammu’ being deemed as Book of the Year 2022 by The Sunday Times, and the inspirations and memories that inspire her ode to Indian home-style cooking.

I’m really happy that I wrote a book about home cooking and what my mother cooked. That it won a gold medal in Germany is interesting, since the country doesn’t actually have a great tradition of Indian food.

My great inspiration and memories from the kitchen is of watching my mother. It was the grace, the silence and the little smiles. She always listened to Kishore Kumar, and loved Rajesh Khanna too. She would hum under her breath, and would tell me that I could stay in the kitchen as long as I held her aanchal. It took me a long time to know why, because she was always between me and the fire. Mothers, in our culture, always make it look so effortless.

Many years later, when I cooked in Cambridge, I almost felt Ammu’s aanchal in my hand when I cooked – and it is such a lovely thing. I grew up in the kitchen, holding her aanchal, with the aromas of the spices and Kishore Kumar under her breath.

These memories are beautiful,so when I cook home food, it comes from a place of great joy, nostalgia, happiness and memories of great food.

On the difference between a ‘cook’ and ‘chef’, and why it’s important to make that difference.

I always call myself a cook and not a chef. While it is a woman cooking in every home, chefs in so many cultures, be it in Ireland, Spain, Portugal or Italy, are men because they have taken professional training and titles.

Yet, the custodians of our food and recipes, and the healers and feeders, are all home cooks – and invariably women. So, if I have to choose what title I want to take on myself, I would rather be in that camp of home cooks who cook for the family, for joy, and to make people happy.

If you're cooking in your own family, you're cooking for people you love. You're not cooking for accolades, praise or ego, but out of a desire to feed people. Being a chef is an honorable profession, but I’d still rather be a cook since this is my tradition, and I honour the food that I cook.

On the ‘supper clubs’, and how important they have been to her journey.

The supper clubs began in 2012. I just finished my research program, but I didn’t enjoy going to court and work or teach, as I was convinced that students knew more than me.

The one thing that made me so happy was to cook. But, a decade ago, you didn't see anyone like me in food media and television, or have a restaurant run by someone like me. They were all professionally-trained women, and I had no such formal training.

This is when I heard about supper clubs, and I decided to do them in my house. Basically, it was an informal dinner where people came to your home, and ate around your table. I knew that I could do this because I had already been doing lots of daawats and feasts.

Every year, all the Indian festivals would always be celebrated in my house because some of my friends were students, who didn't have accommodation – many of them didn't know how to cook either.

So, at our supper clubs, we gathered around the table, broke bread, cried, sang, remembered home and our families, and ate the traditional food of the festivals. This is the kind of ethos that I could recreate in my supper clubs.

I still have supper clubs in my restaurant, where even though people are sitting, the food is served family-style, at individual tables. You eat as much as you want, and take the leftovers home. It’s like how you’d go to an aunt's house, and they give you a little goody bag – a takeaway box of the leftovers. It’s unusual to see that in restaurants, but I want to keep that ethos – because, this is why I am in the food industry.

I didn't come into food to go on streaming platforms, write cookbooks or open restaurants. I started The Supper Club because I wanted to gather people around, nourish, heal and feed them. That is why I I still keep the ‘supper club’ alive, even though now I run a restaurant.

On serving old-school ‘ghar ka khana’ at Darjeeling Express, at a time when the trend is towards modernising the ‘Indian’ cuisine with ‘progressive’ and experimental dishes.

I think that we haven't actually presented Indian food truly to the world – in terms of the food that we once ate, that made us who we are today. I think this comes from some level of insecurity. You've taken on the traditions of other cuisines – for instance, the Michelin stars that early Indian restaurants got in the UK made the food look almost French. They almost dissected the food to make it look elegant and delicate.

The use of garnish and florals just to make it look pretty, bright and French was interesting. But, it was for an audience like Michelin, who didn't – and still don't – understand Indian food.

They have no understanding of what our cuisine is. The early version of ‘modern’ Indian food was something they could readily recognize, understand and compare it to something they had before.

Our food is brown. It doesn’t look beautiful, but tastes amazing.

I'm not criticizing this form of Indian food. It's good, because they got all the accolades they wanted, and made it acceptable to sections of Western societies. But, I want people to come to eat at my table on my terms. Here, I can present to them the food of my people – my family, mother and my women in the kitchen.

And, I feel proud. I don't feel embarrassed if Ammu suddenly turned up at my restaurant table, and ate the way they always did. I'd be proud to serve this food because there are centuries of heritage here.

The world is big enough for all of us, and people should experiment and do whatever excites them. But, do not just take the food and present it in the way you want, without acknowledging and giving respect to its roots.

On the new tasting menu at Darjeeling Express, its philosophy and its pricing.

I was so tired of Indian restaurants, which inevitably were fine dining, did tasting menus and made the food look completely crazy. There was so much theatre and drama, served in crazy ways – it was as if the food was never good enough.

I don't think that was necessary, so I introduced a tasting menu where one of the courses was Puri Aloo Dum – that's it. We had paratha and kebab – it is literally the food that we would like to eat. I charge £95 for it because I'm so tired that people think Indian food should be cheap and cheerful and only if it looks a bit French or Japanese that you pay a lot of money for it.

Our food, that is eaten in families, is sophisticated. It's elevated, has a huge heritage and that's what I served in the tasting menu because it was unusual.

Normally, I would never serve the food in courses, but I did this for a political reason. I wanted people to come to the table and eat this food – beautifully made and extremely sophisticated, without all the edible flowers and the nitrogen gas and fluff and foam, as if almost to mask that this dish was Indian.

On the all-women team at Darjeeling Express.

I had an old women's kitchen in Darjeeling Express because I needed women who cooked with an estimate and instinct – who could watch you and see who didn’t have that instinct. A lot of chefs currently in the West (and East too), have identical CVs.

They train under a regime, and cook very similar food. You have Kali Dal and Dal Makhani, which most people don't have at home. You get them in every restaurant, and they taste almost the same everywhere because there's this kind of fixed routine of all the things that they could cook.

Many of the five-star hotels are training grounds for chefs that have become very well-known around the world, and credit to them that they did it. But, this kind of mass cooking and big stainless steel empires of big kitchens is the heritage where a lot of these male chefs have cooked.

I needed women who were used to home cooking, and who could understand where I was coming from. This is why I have an all-female kitchen.

On challenges of being a woman in a male-majority industry of professional commercial kitchens.

I have luckily not had to actually work with men in male kitchens. I think I may have struggled. You are pretty much in a huge minority when you're a female founder and you have an all-female kitchen, although it's not that all-female kitchens are unusual. We've got a fabulous restaurant in Calcutta, called Suruchi.

In Nizamuddin, there are instances of women cooking. There is a fabulous African-Gujarati restaurant on Ealing Road in London, which too has a women-led kitchen. But, these are at a certain price point, in a simple space with home-style food.

At this point, I run the only Indian restaurant with an all-female kitchen in the world, at the price we serve at.

This is extremely distressing, because when women are the ones who are normally cooking back in our own cultures, how is it that we are not in control of the kitchens? That all this glory and accolade is only for men, which they might even deserve – but we need space on the stage for us.

This is not unique to Indian food – you find this in other cuisines as well, such as Japanese, French and Italian. The big super-star chefs are all men. You do have the occasional woman, but that's a minority.

Even though I've never had to face discrimination or difficulty because I've never had to cook with men, I make it part of my mission to constantly talk about gender inequality in kitchens – about racism, bullying, and harassment of women.

I am empathetic and sympathetic enough to understand that it is morally wrong. It is also illegal to touch someone without consent and physically assault them in kitchens. If you did that outside the kitchen, you would be in jail. Somehow, chefs get away with physical violence against their staff in the kitchen, because they're being protected.

On meeting Malala Yousafzai, and the identity of two women from the same subcontinent divided by borders — who share food memories in a foreign land.

It was wonderful to meet Malala – I’ve hugely admired her. I love her grace and her dignity, and when we met, I asked her about what she cooked, and then discovered she cannot cook at all!

She has rebuilt her life into academics, but we discussed Eid and Iftaar, and the kind of food we love to eat. She is from a different part of the subcontinent, but it was a sense of as if she was family.

This is what food does – irrespective of who you are, where you come from and what your journey has been, the moment you start talking about food, there is a great leveling. Food is given to us as takeaways from relatives – and memories of food that we ate when we went to school, and with friends and family.

Speaking to Malala was emotional, because whoever you become – and today she is Malala that the whole world knows as – her passion and emotion when it comes to food are the same.

Food is the one thing that takes you home.

On the statement, "It took a global pandemic, needed men to fail, needed big chains to collapse for a landlord to get back to me and say, 'we have a lot of properties, would you be interested in seeing one?'"

After the Netflix documentary in 2018-19, I started trying to find a bigger place. We didn't have storage, and were really struggling. I kept getting pushed back from all the landlords, who would say that the place I was looking at “wasn’t suitable” for me.

I’d feel low, and wish they'd shown it to me. This is when the pandemic happened.

Suddenly, I got contacted by loads of landlords saying we have properties. I realized that this is because of all those male chefs – some of whom were very mediocre – who they had given properties to but not to me. They’d not even given me an opportunity to look at it, but now, they were happy to help me.

There was no space for someone like me earlier, but now there was, because all these men had failed. It was an extremely shocking discovery. I realized that when they would ask me if I had a business partner, or venture capitalist money – they were asking me for my “suitable boy”.

The impression in the West is that women in the East are oppressed because you're constantly asked about your father, husband or brother. The West is just as bad, and single female founders are not taken seriously. They just have a veneer of sophistication that they hide behind.

I took the rent, because I'm not going to bring my ego in at work. I took it for a short time. Of course, when things got better, the landlord asked me to leave – and I have left, too.

Thankfully, I’m now moving to a really nice place, and I'm happy. But, I spoke about it because I want other women to know that they are not unlucky. The system will, even today, not allow you to get the places you want.

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