Asma Khan on food, family and fighting the patriarchy
WORDS BY CHRISTINA DEAN
Asma Khan is hiding out in the only corner of The Pembroke where she can get a decent connection, the day before her Darjeeling Express pop-up opens, and she’s found out there’s no gas, and they can’t get hold of an engineer to come out and sort it but she’s determined to still make time to talk.
Asma is no stranger to a challenge. She navigated lockdown by doing takeaways and biryani deliveries, something she never imagined she would do. “The first time someone sent me a picture that my biryani reached Edinburgh, I was in tears. It just seemed so crazy that a very personal, almost sacred dish of mine, I put it in the letterbox and it went. Not the letterbox, it was DPD, but still incredible,” she says, laughing. She opened the Covent Garden iteration of Darjeeling Express (after outgrowing her first bricks-and-mortar site in Kingly Court) during the pandemic before there was testing, let alone a vaccine. And after being forced out there earlier than expected, and whilst trying to find a new permanent location for the restaurant, she agreed to do a pop-up, and of course, both got confirmed at the same time.
Before Darjeeling Express 3.0 opens some time in December, she’s set up shop at Kensington pub The Pembroke, which happens to be local to her, mainly so her staff can stay working. “I would never have chosen to go and do a temporary gig because there’s a lot of emotion and setting up – today has been chaos – and things become more difficult but I also was aware that it was hard for my team to actually go and work anywhere else,” she explains. “A lot of my front of house could work elsewhere but the kitchen team wanted to stay and wait and because of that I decided to look for something temporary.”
It’s all happening at a very precarious time for the hospitality industry. There are still lingering staffing issues caused by Brexit and the pandemic, and now the rising prices of food and gas – two things essential to any restaurant – are hitting particularly hard. “If we try and pass on these costs to our customers, this is what they’ll stop doing first, they’ll stop going out to eat. When it becomes very expensive, even I would do that,” she says. “People feel insecure about their future, they feel less wealthy, they need to conserve money, they need to save up, they need to make sure they have enough so they can pay for the basics. ‘Basics’ doesn’t mean a restaurant trip.” Rising prices are forcing everyone to tighten their purse strings and more people are being pushed into food poverty.
With more people in need and less able to donate money, it’s a double hit on hunger charities like Action Against Hunger. Asma has been involved with Action Against Hunger since the start of her career, when she would donate the proceeds from supper clubs she held at her house. “This is really driven by my personal belief that if you start something auspicious or start something new, you must do something that is auspicious and correct and I think you should feed the hungry,” she says. “If your aim in life is to be successful, run a business, to feed people, I think you start from the hungry, you start from the poor, you start from the malnourished, as a way of acknowledging how food is so important. It is a spiritual thing for me, I feel that you should feed the hungry before you feed people who will pay you.”
Of course she appreciates that there will be an instinct to not donate, not to spend money but she is at pains to express just how significant even the smallest contribution can be. As she says, “when you donate to certain charities it’s about life and death. When you look at the fact that a £1 donation that people might make towards Action Against Hunger, it is enough to pay for vital nutrition for a malnourished child, which means they will survive, and that makes a difference.”
Growing up in India, a place where children are still dying of hunger, where it can be a choice about which child eats and which doesn’t, and where mothers are often the ones not eating at all, Asma is speaking from experience. “Culturally women eat last, girls eat least. This is deeply rooted in our agrarian tradition of women serving men when they came back from work. This still happens in families today in Europe, in America, in the modern world, you will still find a lot of this element of men getting favouritism, of being given higher status at the table.” As she questions, “even in families you hear, ‘oh he’s a growing boy’, do you ever hear this about a growing girl?”
The role of gender in hunger is important because women are biologically more vulnerable to malnutrition. Although they generally have smaller and less muscular bodies than men, so need less energy, women require the same amount of nutrients, and the most nutrient-rich foods are often the most expensive. A healthy diet is even more important during pregnancy, as poor nutrition can increase the risks of complications, and this can then impact the child as well.
Asma shares an experience she had working with another hunger charity that underscores how serious the issue is, “I ended up giving the entire profits of one year of my work to set up a feeding camp in Yemen because I sat next to a doctor who operated on girls who had been fed stones by their mothers to stop them from crying. I couldn’t breathe. At that time luckily I was very very successful, this was pre-covid, and that feeding camp I still support.”
“I think that every chef who is making a living from feeding people needs to also think of a broader picture of food, of nutrition, of hunger, of life. This is probably why you have over 200 restaurants who are involved in supporting [Action Against Hunger’s] Love Food Give Food campaign and I think that’s where the power comes from,” she says.
Throughout her career, Asma has been very vocal on gender and the bias against the girl child, and how the value of women and girls is reflected in the way they are (or are not) fed. The irony that in many of these cultures it’s the women who cook but when you start talking about cooking in a professional sense, women are barely there, is not lost on her. She is a fierce advocate for women in hospitality, as evidenced by her decision to run Darjeeling Express with an all-female team, and it’s an issue she will not stop fighting for.
“This really has to do with our status, the fact that we are not honoured and my god in my lifetime I will see this change. And even when I die, a woman can walk into a room and say my name, when she’s trying to raise money for a restaurant or a lease or whatever. So even in my death I will be someone for women,” she rallies. “This is not for me about something on the side. It’s at the core of what I do, I happen to have a restaurant on the side. The core of what I do is shaking this deep-rooted patriarchy. Patriarchy against women, patriarchy that works against girls but also the patriarchy of food.”
There is one woman who Asma has made a special effort to honour, and that’s her mother, to who her latest cookbook Ammu is dedicated.
It’s a book that she always wanted to write but was spurred on by the losses that Covid caused in her own family and among her friends. “I realised that this cannot be a memoir because I will never write it, it has to be given to her in her lifetime so she understood that I understood what she had done for me,” she says. “Mothers are the most uncelebrated people I know, you almost take it for granted that they will be there, you only feel that loss after they are gone. I didn’t want to wait for that, I wanted it in her lifetime, for her to know that she made me and the impact she had on me.” It took 21 nights of writing, of remembering, of analysing her childhood in a way she had not been able to do before, understanding and appreciating the sacrifices her mother made so that she would not go without.
“It was very emotional but I’m really glad I did it and then of course I could take it to her and it was a real sense of victory for me, that I survived, she survived, and so many people pulled through, so many people made it, and it really is a celebration of love, and food, and family life.” Show us a better subject for a book than that.