Asma Khan introduced her blend of South Asian food to England in 2017 when she founded the Darjeerling Express, a brick-and-mortar restaurant in London that started off as a supper club. Born in Calcutta, now Kolkata, Khan’s food journey started young. Her family traveled extensively around India for her father’s job. Later as a young adult, she relocated to the United Kingdom. Khan’s cooking ethos reflects her worldly upbringing and education—with degrees in history and law leading to a lifelong passion for cooking and becoming a pioneer for South Asian cuisine in the UK, having written cookbooks while raising two children, opening restaurants and even appearing on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. AramcoWorld caught up with Khan to discuss Ammu and her culinary philosophy, as well as her ongoing activism through food.
What was the story behind the Darjeerling Express’s creation?
About 10 years ago, [The Darjeerling Express] started as people eating around my home dining table. Food was served family style, and everybody ate at the same time. You helped each other out. People passed the food around. People would tell you, “Try this, try that.” “Supper club” refers to a style of serving food, but it’s really a home restaurant.
So how was it like transitioning to a physical restaurant?
When I opened the restaurant in 2017, I struggled and made mistakes. The service expectations in a restaurant are very different from a supper club, but I survived and learned fast. Still, I keep a casual, homely atmosphere at The Darjeerling Express. There are no posh waiters. Customers recommend what to eat to each other; there’s a sense of unity and community in my restaurant. Now, we’re relocating because our lease finished. I want a new location where my women are visible. We might even build a site! But we’re planning on opening before the end of the year.
Moving on to your books, Ammu and 2018’s Asma’s Indian Kitchen, they both reflect on that community, but in different ways. Can you describe those differences?
My first cookbook encouraged people to gather around tables and cook. It’s really about holding people’s hands through the process of entertaining. It’s an art. Some people have it; some don’t. [Ammu] is a far more personal book. It was written over the pandemic. Three members of my family died within 40 days. I had school friends who died. It was very hard, and I got scared. In all that darkness, this book was in me, but I didn’t want it to be a memoir. I wanted to give ammu, my mother, the book. I wanted her to know the impact she had on my life. She hadn’t only taught me to cook; she taught me how to live.
Speaking about that warmth in your books, what is the culinary philosophy that guides you as a chef and author?
I use food to empower women, change the narrative of how home cooks were seen and highlight the feudal nature of our food. Food media is influential. That’s why I don’t waste the opportunity. When I was on Chef’s Table, I was the first chef to show their entire team. There is a duty of care when you’re talking about food. There is no reason for only promoting a restaurant, a book, or some culinary crazy theory. We need to talk about power and politics, who eats, who doesn’t eat, water rights, land rights and how food is grown.
How do you talk about such heavy topics through food?
If people are interested in your food and not what you’re saying, they’re the wrong kind of people eating your food. I say this a lot as a Muslim immigrant: You cannot wear my clothes, hear my music, and read my poetry, if you do not accept me. You cannot have my food, and then be derogatory to me and my culture. The separation of food and culture allows people to take the most acceptable part of my heritage: my food. You cannot walk away with my food, and then turn your back at me.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring chefs and restaurant owners?
Lead from behind. Put your arm around everybody, every shift. There’s always an opportunity to do better than the last shift. There may be mistakes, but the troubleshooting should not be public. You manage people and their hearts. When your workers are struggling, they are fragile. You cannot just let them sink. You rule by compassion and empathy. Let your staff and the customers know you’re on their side.