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Asma Khan found her calling when she set up Darjeeling Express but her bigger effort has been to empower displaced women



Tying culture and women emancipation through gastronomical experiences on a world stage is Asma Khan, a Calcutta girl whose voice trembles with joy and nostalgia at the mention of her favourite city. Now a British citizen, she went from La Martiniere for Girls to Loreto College to Darjeeling Express in the heart of London to a food pop-up in war-torn Iraq to a celebrated episode of the coveted Netflix show Chef’s Table and, as everyone who had the good fortune of interacting with her would agree, she is just getting started. An arranged marriage took her to London at 21, and an erudite husband pushed her to get a PhD in law from King’s College, London, but her heart lay elsewhere.

With financial help from her husband, she decided to get into the food business, an experience that previously had been limited to a supper club in her home, open to friends and friends of friends. Her restaurant Darjeeling Express in Soho employs immigrant women with no prior knowledge, in an effort to empower them and she took the same idea to Iraq to make a place for Yazidi women to stand on their own two feet at an eatery called The Lotus Cafe. She plans to take this idea to Bangladesh to help women affected by the Rohingya crisis and to the infamous red light district of Calcutta as well. Visitors to her London restaurant include the likes of Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Lupita Nyong’o and Manish Malhotra. “He comes up and stands in the queue outside my restaurant. I tell him to skip the line but you know how he is,” she waxes eloquent about Sabyasachi, her dear friend.

Book cover

Her book Asma’s Indian Kitchen brings together her heritage tracing back to Calcutta, Bihar and Aligarh and is a far cry from the steadfast and often complicated rules of didactic cookbooks. From cooking for two to a celebratory dinner, her book covers a range as varied as her body of work. t2oS spent few eloquent minutes with the chef, restaurateur and author at The Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020 when she told us how Aminia is her favourite restaurant in Calcutta because of their exceptional firni and her dreams of being invited back to her school someday. Excerpts.

Calcutta, oh Calcutta!
I used to work with the Sunday magazine at ABP, which was then being edited by Vir Sanghvi. I didn’t understand the enormity of leaving home when I got married and moved to London. I was very excited to be getting married, that too to a man who was so intelligent and well educated, with a gold medal in economics from Oxford (University). He seemed nice, liberal and very radical about his politics. These were all the things that were important for me, coming from a family that I did. I wasn’t going to end up with a feudal, conservative person so he came as a relief. I thought ‘this is going to be a great life’, without really understanding what it means to leave home and the significance of leaving a city like Calcutta. All my life, I am going to look for a city like Calcutta and never find it. If I was walking on the road and someone tapped me on the back and said ‘Tomar bari koi?’, I would say Calcutta.

It’s been 30 years since I left but I have not left. Everytime I walk the streets of the city, I feel that every wall recognises me and every part of the city embraces me. It’s very difficult to explain why. My parents now live in Aligarh but there is something magical in Calcutta. In the darkness, when you drive through parts of London, it looks like BBD Bagh and the commercial streets of Calcutta. That gives me pleasure. In moments when I have not been able to get off and have just flown over the city, it’s like a bereavement. This loss is also compensated with immense pride because I am what I am because I was raised and educated in Calcutta.

Learning in Calcutta

I was taught by the most amazing people who didn’t feel the need to distort or airbrush history — who gave you the tools and the information and allowed you to come to your own conclusions. Now when I look around, I realise what a privilege it was to have had that kind of education, to have had an understanding of power and to have understood history from a people’s point of view. It was an incredible education, untainted by prejudice. All of us educated in Calcutta in the ’80s would agree that we were taught in a non-judgmental way and I carried that with me, wherever I went. I was taught by teachers who didn’t mince words.

When you told people you were from Calcutta, no one asked you if you were Bengali because no one cared. I still remember how the bus driver would say ‘Aaste ladies’ and immediately someone would stand up and vacate their seat. That doesn’t happen any more. I see pregnant women standing in the London tube and people pretend not to see them. These little things you carry forever with you. It’s strange to say ‘How can a city love you?’ but I think it loved me. Maybe because I am half Bengali, I am very emotional about things. Bengalis tend to be!

After moving, I went to Cambridge to study law and unfortunately, that was when my husband got transferred to London. Because I had such terrible memories of living alone in Cambridge that I moved to London and started my law degree there. Most people exclaim at my leaving Cambridge, but I remember how lonely it felt. I finished law, had a child and then enrolled in the PhD programme. The degree took a while because I had my second child then. I remember I had my final viva exam to get my PhD and that same day I registered Darjeeling Express. It was a food company and I knew I had already gotten my PhD so this was finally the time I could tell people that I was getting into the food business. Till then I was lying and telling them that I was going to work at the House of Lords!

Darjeeling Express rolls

That hectic day, when I was registering my company, they asked me for a name and in that rushed moment I thought of my winter vacations in Darjeeling — with every other Bengali going up with you in monkey caps! At that time I felt like I owned the world. I thought I was going to become very famous. It wasn’t even a name of the restaurant, it was just a food business and from there the pop-ups were called Darjeeling Express and the brunches too got the same name. So, eventually, when I opened a restaurant, it had to be called Darjeeling Express.

People ask me, ‘You named your restaurant after a train?’ and I tell them the story. It was my moment of freedom when they asked me for a name and I thought back to when I last felt that free. It was during those winter vacations when I was allowed to wear jeans, which was otherwise disallowed in my very conservative household, I felt very important. Even though the actual Darjeeling Express is not in Calcutta, it is very Calcutta. Even though I did not name it Calcutta, in effect I did and this is my homage to the city.

Biryani Supperclub

I don’t do it like other restaurants with some salan on the side and naan on top. What is that even? So in my Biryani Supperclub, which used to happen every alternate Saturdays, everyone has to eat at the same time, like in a Muslim wedding with a large silver thaali where you keep eating till you die! (Laughs)

There is aloo and there is gosht and they all need to be mixed, which can only happen in large quantities. I can only cook biryani for 100 people, I can’t make less! The whole restaurant has to eat. Now the problem is we are booked out till July so there is no time I can close it and plan a supper.

Who is riding the Darjeeling Express?

There’s been a change. Before Netflix, there were probably 40 per cent South Asians and 60 per cent non-South Asians. I say South Asians because you can’t really identify and to me they are all the same. Now it is almost 85-90 per cent non-Indians because an Indian is not going to take a flight and come down to eat my food. People do fly in from New York to have lunch with me and fly back the same day. That’s quite common. They come with their bags and make the front of my restaurant look like a railway station! Also, Indians don’t know what plans they have next week. You think they are going to plan six months in advance? But goraas do and they turn up. And this is not a biased statement. It’s just that our lives are changing every day and getting so many people together is a Herculean task. It’s like herding cats! This is why Indians are losing out, I feel. Which is why it’s mainly non-South Asians.

Chef’s Table

I never followed the show. I had only seen bits and pieces of it. I wasn’t going to sit and watch a tortured chef cooking in his kitchen! So, when Netflix emailed me, I thought it was a hoax. I thought it was one of those emails that said ‘Welcome to Chef’s Table. We would love to feature you, please give your bank details and transfer $20,000!’ Then I had the good sense to Google the name of the person who sent the email and realised that he was one of the creators of Chef’s Table. Then I panicked and called him! They couldn’t understand what took me so long to respond! And I spoke to a couple of more people of their team and realised that they’d completely researched me and it wasn’t just the beginning of a conversation. They were ready to shoot, the moment I gave the date and place.

I wanted to do Calcutta but they said they’d already done Gaggan (Anand) there, so Aligarh was the next choice. We filmed in India, at my restaurant in London and the supper club was created in my home. My husband horrifiedly asked me if I was going to do this again at home and I had to assure him that it was just for the film! It was great fun and I met such great people who taught me that people who are not cooks can also love food with this much intensity.

The art of cooking

Culinary arts are no longer about ‘Khansama banoge? Bawarchi banoge?’ Now people are on TV, the Nigella Lawsons of the world and people are watching and getting inspired. But my hope from my episode is that it inspires older women, who are great cooks, to do something. Cooking is something that deserves to be respected. Especially for women of colour, that this, too, is an option for you.

Need for emancipation and empowerment

I can never be free when I know there are women around me in chains. My freedom will mean nothing. So that I could enjoy my freedom I felt the need to liberate them.

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