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

This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awal.

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, of Darjeeling Express fame, the book is a journey into the reckoning and coming of age of Indian cuisine on a global scale. Khan was recently in New Delhi for the Food for Thought Festival organised by The South Asian Association For Gastronomy. The festival brought together the stakeholders of the hospitality industry — scholars, authors, chefs, and policy influencers from South Asia.

In a free-wheeling conversation, Khan reveals the emotions that led to 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.

On ‘Ammu’ being deemed Book of the Year 2022 by The Sunday Times, and the inspirations and memories that inspired 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, as the country doesn’t actually have a great tradition of Indian food.

My great inspiration and memory 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 figure out why; she was keeping herself between the fire and me. Mothers, in our culture, always make it all look so effortless.

Many years later, when I cooked in Cambridge, I almost felt Ammu’s aanchal in my hand — such a lovely sensation. I grew up in the kitchen, holding her aanchal, with the aroma of spices and Kishore Kumar’s tunes wafting in the background.

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

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

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, as they have received 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 a title for myself, I would rather be in the 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. Instead, you are doing it due to the desire of feeding people. Being a chef is an honorable profession, but I’d still rather be a cook as 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 had just finished my research program, but didn’t enjoy going to court and work or teach, as I was convinced that the students knew more than me.

The one thing that made me happy was cooking. But a decade ago, you didn’t see anyone like me in food media and television, or own and manage a restaurant. Other women were all professionally trained, and I had no such formal training.

This is when I heard about supper clubs and decided to conduct them in my house. Basically, it was an informal dinner where people came to your home and ate at your table. I knew I could do it 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 our home and families, and ate traditional festival food. This is the kind of ethos that I could recreate in my supper clubs.

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 ‘Indian’ cuisine with ‘progressive’ and experimental dishes.

I think 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.

I’m not criticizing this form of Indian food. It’s good because it got all the accolades and made it acceptable to sections of Western society. However, I want people to come to eat at my table on my terms. Here, I can present the food of my people — my family, mother, and my women in the kitchen.

And, I feel proud. I wouldn’t feel embarrassed if Ammu suddenly turned up at my restaurant, and ate the way she always did. I’d be proud to serve this food because there is centuries of heritage right 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 pricing.

I was so tired of Indian restaurants which inevitably were all about fine-dining and tasting menus. There was so much theatre and drama, as if the food was never good enough.

I didn’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 — literally the food we would like to eat. I charge £95 for it because I’m so tired of people thinking that Indian food should be cheap and cheerful and only if it looks a bit French or Japanese should you pay a lot of money for it.

Normally, I would never serve 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. A lot of chefs currently in the West (and East too) have identical CVs. They undergo regimented training 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 a kind of fixed routine of all the things that they could cook.

Many five-star hotels are training grounds for chefs… They have become very well-known around the world, and credit to them for that. . 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.

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

Luckily, I haven’t really 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 Kolkata, 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 this price point.

This is extremely distressing because when women are the ones who are normally cooking in our own culture, how is it that we are not in control of the kitchens? There is all this glory and accolades only for men — which they might even deserve — but we do need space on the stage for us as well.

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.

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!

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 felt as if she was family.

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

Food is the one thing that takes you home.

On the statement, “It took a global pandemic, men failing, and big chains collapsing for a landlord to get back to me and ask whether I was interested in seeing a property.”

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

I’d feel low, and wish they’d at least shown it to me. This is when the pandemic occurred.

Suddenly, loads of landlords contacted me by saying they have properties. I realized this is because of all those male chefs — some of whom were very mediocre — who they had given properties to. They’d not even given me an opportunity, 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 place on rent, because I wasn’t going to bring my ego in at work. So I took it for a short time. Of course, when things got better, the landlord asked me to leave — and I 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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