Our columnist chats with the pioneering women’s champion about transforming the lives of immigrants and the power of good samosas.
Asma Khan has never formally trained, but a) runs one of the most remarkable Indian restaurants in London, Darjeeling Express, b) has just published an amazing cookbook, and c) is one of my all-time culinary heroes. I asked her to lunch and cooked her amazing saffron korma with beetroot raita. Her story is not what you would expect…
EF: So you’re of royal Indian descent. Did you learn to cook in a palace kitchen?
AK: No – my mother ran a food business, so I grew up with 25 people in my kitchen, and we had our family cook. There was no question of me ever going into the kitchen.
EF: But then you married and came to England, without the family cook!
AK: My husband is very liberal. When we married, he said to my parents ‘I believe in equality, I will cook for, and feed, your daughter,’ and I thought ‘Oh, great.’ He forgot to say he only knew how to cook one thing – a generic chicken curry, and rice that was so hideous I could glue myself to the ceiling with it. And at my first meal out, they served boiled cabbage. It was like someone had overcooked their clothes and given me the results. I thought, THIS is what hell is.
EF: So how did you get out of hell?
AK: I went back to India and I learned to cook. I lied a bit and told my family in India, ‘I’m not going back to England (and my husband) unless everyone teaches me how to cook’. If I’d left my husband, the disgrace would have been so terrible it would have meant none of my cousins could’ve got married. So all these aunts, who normally refuse to part with any of their recipes, taught me everything, things they’d never even told their own daughters.
EF: So now you were custodian of all the family recipes, what did you do with them?
AK: I started a supper club, turning my house into a restaurant once a week. I could only do it when my husband wasn’t there – the idea of strangers walking around his house would have completely thrown him. I didn’t lie, I just didn’t tell him. And my children locked themselves in their bedrooms to avoid it all.
At this point, my teenage son Charlie declared that he’d done the same when I held a supper club for strangers in our house, and he was firmly on her children’s side.
EF: So who helped you do it?
AK: All my kitchen team were nannies at my kids’ school or nurses at the local hospital. I saw them around and recognised that hollow look of an immigrant – their souls were empty. I could see the same look in their eyes that I had when I came to the UK. So I invited them to my house for chai and samosas. I helped them go through their immigrant journey, filling their application forms for the Home Office, and becoming free citizens. And when I began the supper clubs, they all came to help.
EF: Did your husband ever find out?
AK: Not then – but my kids snitched to my father and he told me to shut it down.
Charlie punches the air in solidarity.
EF: So that resulted in you opening a restaurant, Darjeeling Express in Soho…
AK: Yes. But I almost didn’t get the lease – I had to compete with 55 people for it and I’m not a natural businesswoman, I’m no good at maths and my friend had to write my business plan. I called the landlord and said ‘I’m going to come to do the pitch but it’s not going to be a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, I’m going to make you lunch, because that is my strength – why should I come and show you my weakness.’ Then I said to my women ‘Let’s make some samosas.’ Well, you should never say ‘some’ to Indian women. They made 100, so we fed not just the landlord’s team, but the entire building. When we left, 40 people said to him ‘I hope she gets the lease’.
EF: And you got it?
AK: Yes, of course I did. This is the magic of food.
EF And now you only have women in your kitchen.
AK: Yes – the same women from the supper clubs – it’s finally a home for us. Many of them still can’t follow written recipes. I’m giving all of them my cookbook, but one of them said ‘Oh, I’ll decorate it’ and another said ‘I’ll frame it and put it above my bed’.
EF: Is anyone who works there trained?
EF: Does it feel like a professional kitchen?
AK: It tastes like a professional kitchen, but we do it all manually. We have no food processors or blenders – we use pestle and mortars and we mix everything by hand.
EF: I made two batches of your beetroot raita – one where I grated the beetroot by hand, the other where I did it in the food processor. Which do you think is better?
AK: Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no competition! The hand-grated one is totally superior.
She’s right, of course. We sit down to eat. Her korma is the best I’ve ever had.
EF: What’s your favourite Indian dish?
AK: Biryani. It sums me up.
EF: Sounds like you’re talking about something more than food here…
AK: I strongly believe in equality, in the idea of tribes and keeping women together. The biryani dish for me symbolises that – it has three elements: rice, meat and potatoes. Your role can be just one of the rice grains, but every part matters. Everybody is equal. That grain of rice is as powerful as the saffron or the meat. But it’s only when it comes together that it works. If you ask me who I am, I will tell you, ‘I am this dish’.
Try Asma's recipe for saffron chicken korma.
Read more articles by Emma Freud...
Recipe adapted from Asma's Indian Kitchen by Asma Khan (£20, Pavilion Books). Asma has just opened a new teahouse and cake shop, Calcutta Canteen, in London’s Carnaby Street