As Asma Khan’s acclaimed restaurant, Darjeeling Express, finds a new home in Carnaby London, Kingly Court, the chef is in the process of letting go of some things. The old meets the new in this space, which will open soon.
Khan calls the move to Carnaby London a milestone in the restaurant’s journey—after all, it has been a decade since she started Darjeeling Express as an all-women collective from the dining table at her London home. “In the new menu, we have some of the dishes that were made right from the beginning, which would be served at that time in the bone china and silver from my bridal trousseau,” says Khan, who was recently in India for the sixth edition of the Food For Thought festival, organised by the South Asian Association for Gastronomy.
2022 has been a landmark year for the activist-chef, not just because she has found a “spiritual home” for Darjeeling Express but also because she has taken on a new role—that of chef advocate at the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). The coming year will see her commitment to women empowerment and alleviating the hunger crisis getting stronger. “If my life is now about food, it should be about food for all,” says the chef, who has also authored a very personal book, Ammu: Indian Home-Cooking To Nourish Your Soul, a joyful tribute to her mother and her style of simple home-cooking.
While describing the new space, Khan says the menu is a celebration of her all-women’s team and where they come from. “So we have vada pav to represent Rashmi, who is from Mumbai, momos to celebrate my most trusted chef, Asha, so on and so forth. Of course, you have the biryani, chicken chaap, rezala and kathi roll. But you also have food of the women who are the heart of the kitchen,” she elaborates.
Often, menus in a restaurant are mirror images of the founding chefs and the cuisines of places they hail from. “But the person doing the actual cooking is from some other area altogether. This is true in India but more so in the West. If you go to any good Indian restaurant in the US, you will find Filipinos and Latin Americans doing the cooking. Why not showcase their food as well?” she asks.
For the first time, the team of chefs has introduced a Sunday breakfast. For those used to the full English, it’s time to become familiar with a full Indian breakfast. So you have the stuffed parathas, halwa chana poori, which is made in Muslim and Punjabi families, poha, cheela and a lot more. “In our culture, when you hit the 50s, everyone makes you feel like you are now on your way down. But we are at the pinnacle of our strength and take great pride in who we are. And that’s why you will find poha and cheela on a London restaurant’s menu,” says Khan.
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The regular menu now features many more flavours from Kolkata—the kosha mangsho, the beetroot chop, different variants of biryani. “It’s a bigger menu and a bigger kitchen. Unlike most people, who design a menu around the kitchen, here it has been the other way around. I am giving the most valuable space of the restaurant—the central part—to my team of women,” she adds.
Khan, an advocate of optimised and sustainable menus, has spoken in the media at great length about the need to move away from ego-driven menus, which often feature ingredients that are neither seasonal nor local. “Expensive ingredients, flown in from faraway places, are so fragile. We need to ask restaurants and cafés why they need to use imported avocado in London. Why chefs bring in refrigerated, cling-wrapped, jet-lagged okra and jackfruit from abroad to the UK. The farmer is not getting the money, only the middlemen are,” asserts Khan. At the other end of the spectrum are restaurants that claim to be conscious but end up charging exorbitantly. She urges chefs to buy local to bring down costs. “Tell your customers you care about the planet. Be brave,” she adds.
This year, Khan was also designated the WFP’s chef advocate. According to a press note from the organisation, she has long been a supporter of the WFP and its causes, such as the Women Are Hungrier campaign and ShareTheMeal, a crowdfunding smartphone application to fight global hunger.
In her new role, Khan will continue to draw attention to the hunger crisis and the role of women empowerment in ending hunger. “In certain communities, women—women eat last, girls eat least. In areas facing famine, women fare the worst,” says Khan. “I work in refugee camps. I have a café in a refugee camp in Iraq.”
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She cites the example of chef Vikas Khanna and his work in getting food to vulnerable communities during the covid-19 pandemic. “It shouldn’t be a handful of chefs doing this. Rather, all of us should be talking about important things such as farmers’ rights, who is eating and who is not, and more,” says Khan.
In fact, Khan hopes to further her interest in legacy, politics and storytelling in all her future books. She is now researching the influence of the British, Portuguese, French, Arabs, and Tibetans on regional cuisines in India. “My writing will always be rooted in the politics of removing hatred. In India, food has been used to divide people—you shouldn’t eat with this community, a person eating a particular thing is considered unclean,” says Khan.
Food should be about bringing people together over bread and conversation. She cites the example of her two children—one can’t bear to eat spicy food, the other thrives on dal, roti, chawal. “But both are my children and I love them equally. I don’t discriminate among them for what they choose to eat. Food offers us a shared experience. You might hail from a different culture than me. But there is still something that you and I can eat together and talk about,” she adds.
She wants to use food—whether as recipes in her book or meals at her restaurant—as a bridge. “You can’t take my food but not accept me. You can’t be racist to people. When you separate food and people, that becomes a problem. And I will be writing more about this interconnection between food, legacy, justice and power,” she signs off.