Asma Khan, the author of Asma’s Indian Kitchen, brings life into a conversation with every word – she sits down and speaks to you as though she has known you forever. One can only imagine being a customer in her restaurant Darjeeling Express in Soho, London, and being immediately embraced by the arms of the warmest host – stories from her restaurant confirm the way she spurs her guests to eat more and eat better! Hearing about her easy intimacy with food, one might think she always had a deep familiarity with the kitchen – but actually the dream of cooking came to her late, after her childhood and early years in Calcutta, after her wedding, after moving to England, and, in many ways, after a PhD in Constitutional Law.

In her conversation with Scroll at the 2024 Jaipur Literature Festival, Asma Khan recalled her childhood and her journey to becoming a restaurateur, elaborated on her ethos of hospitality, and the subtle and thoughtful ways in which she’s built her practice, on the relationship she has to food – and through it – to the world, and offered her thoughts on many food- and industry-related matters. The unflinching verve and conviction in every response cement the image of a woman who leapt into the restaurant scene only to upend its rules. Listening to her might just inspire you to cook – or at least compel you to see that food and cooking matter. Only a few plates of shahi tukda would’ve made this conversation better.

Journeys and methods

What do you mean when you say there’s a relationship between food and storytelling? Give us an example.
I think the real first example I should give is that of how, traditionally, we were all fed as children: someone feeding us by hand, telling us stories of Raja-Rani, different kinds of beautiful stories about glamorous, exciting things to distract those that were fussy eaters. I didn’t need a story – I ate, I was a person who loved my food – but I also loved the stories. This combination of stories and food has a different connotation for me now: I'm telling the stories of the food so that you can route it to the region where it came from, but also for me to explain that this is not generic food. People will say, “I’m going to eat Indian food.” But what are you eating? You won’t say, “I’m going to go and eat American food. I'm going to eat European food.” Are you eating pasta? Are you eating spaghetti? And what kind? But everyone seems to think that we have “Indian” food. Stories are important because they give a more specific context – almost taking you to the village from which that dish has come, telling you why it's called this, what is the season, what happens when the monsoon comes. How we wait for winter to put cauliflower into the shingara, or the laal gajar in gajar ka halwa. Stories bring to life not just the food but the culture. I am interested in connecting the culture, the people, and the food all in one sentence.

So the very specific; it’s not just storytelling, but the very story of the dish – which is part of the experience. When you explain your dishes to your guests, which we’ve learnt you do, what do you tell them? Why explain what does it do, for them, but also for you?
I think it’s important to explain the dish because I’m proud of the story of that dish. I want to celebrate the hands that cooked the dish, but also the fact that it has survived all this time, and I want to highlight the influence of women who have passed these recipes from one generation to another. I learned from my grandmother, I learned from my great-aunt that this one dish was historically made in my family for weddings. I want to put that in the story because it brings to a dish a kind of flavour. When the flavour of the food and the flavour of the story mix together, you have a holistic experience. You get to understand what you are eating.

Also, I think that so many people – especially in the West, but I’m seeing it in the East as well – eat without thinking. It’s mindless. They're eating in front of the television, they’re watching cricket and they’re eating, they’re scrolling on their phone and they’re eating. They’re not looking back at this ingredient, this shining laal gajar, thinking it’s winter, it’s available only for a short time. I want people to understand that eating is not about your right to consume, it is your right to be nourished. You are being nourished in this space – in my restaurant, I will serve you. Service, stories: all of these are very closely linked for me.

So the hope is that the stories make people pay keen attention to what they’re eating.
Yes. It makes me feel like I’m the ambassador of this dish.

Now, you always didn’t cook this way. You moved from cooking for yourself and friends, to running supper clubs, to having your own restaurant. What has been different across each step? You’ve spoken before of new considerations to keep in mind, new skillsets gained. What about how you feel about cooking itself how has that relationship been affected?
This is a very good question. Yes, the transformation is from me cooking for 30-40 people in my own house in my own kitchen to a strange kitchen, in a pop-up which is temporary, to my own restaurant kitchen, which because of regulations has to have a certain kind of standard (a lot of stainless steel because of the cleanliness). Obviously, there’s the transformation of the space: there are all these lights and extractors; and different kinds of regulations change the kitchen structure. But I have tried to cook in the same way. I have tried to keep it real because otherwise, I will lose the soul of the dish. Even now in my restaurant, you will see people are bhelo-ing parathas as they are ordered, or they’re making luchis fresh. I make kosha mangsho and you can hear the kashkashkash, the bang bang of the chamach as we are scraping the bottom. We’re not taking shortcuts, we’re doing it in the traditional way. That is the USP: ghar ka khana, taking you back to your childhood. The environment has changed, the kitchen structure has changed physically but in our hearts, nothing has changed, I think.

What about your relationship with food before you learned to cook? Were you a good eater? Did you pay attention to what you were eating? You could also give us a memory of a moment of eating you remember very clearly but before The Enlightenment in London.
That’s a very good question. My relationship with food was…I didn't know how to cook, but my mother had a catering business. Hers was an outside kitchen – in the garage. And I would be playing cricket with all the children, just outside. And I was the cooks’ favorite because I liked eating. I was, you know, the girl of the house – everyone loved me. So there I was, running to get the ball halfway through an over, or batting, and a banda would come with a plate of something – for tasting. “Does this have enough chini?” This all my neighbours remember, even now, that halfway through my innings, shahi tukda would’ve turned up for a taste test. And I learnt very simple things, like the fact that chini badhti hai as the dessert cools, because they would’ve sent it to me at different times. From a kofta to a kebab, the first piece was pulled and given to me. Even chai: a half cup would be sent to me, checking it before it has been served to the guests. That developed my confidence; I felt like my opinion mattered. People knew that I knew what everything should taste like.

No one has asked me this question, so I hadn’t had the chance to remember this. I think these experiences made a huge difference to what happened afterwards: from not knowing how to cook, I could move to cook so well because I was immersed in the experience. All my senses knew what was happening with the food. The cooking was done outside, so I could hear when the mirchi went into the oil, I knew the smell of the caramelised onion, I remember the sound of the huge spoon going in and taking out the onions, I remember how it was spread out. Not many, I think, have learned to cook like I have. I wasn’t trying, but my senses and memories and my sensibility already knew what needed to happen, even though I was not interested. Back then I was only interested in eating, in the last stage.

Tell us what it was like, the process of learning to cook: what were the joys, what were the exasperations, how did you find a footing in it?
The early cooking days were not so great. There were lots of disasters. But within a month, I could learn how to cook everything. Like I said, I grew up knowing what happened in the kitchen, I had visual and sensory memories of it. Some people who don’t know how to cook never went into the kitchen: they’re not going to have that sense where they know when something is half-done when it is time to add the dahi. When I learned to cook with all my senses, how could I not replicate it perfectly? I’m not looking at only a recipe, or at pictures, or listening to someone’s voice. It’s all of that and more.

The food served at Asma Khan's restaurant, Darjeeling Express in London.

We were very interested, also, in how the food you make in London is sourced locally: you use asparagus and courgettes as substitutes in Indian dishes. People often think of that as sacrilegious, but you seem very open to that kind of change. Even in Ammu, your most recent cookbook, you encourage cooks to “experiment.” How did you learn a love for experimenting, and what would you say it’s done for your cooking? (Also, tell us about a change or two that has really shocked someone when they found out.)
Well, the reason why I’m experimenting with ingredients is because I’m driven by another very strong philosophy: sustainability. If I want to create a dish and replicate it exactly how it is in India, the ingredient is required to fly from India cling-film wrapped, get into a refrigerated lorry, and then come to my restaurant. It is irresponsible. You get strawberries around the year now in India. Why? Why do you want to have avocados when they don’t grow in your backyard? Why is it coming from a faraway space? I’m telling people to experiment, to not stay pure. It’s not about me being fusion. It is actually driven by respect for farmers.

One of my most-made dishes – which is not in Ammu, but in my first book Asma’s Indian Kitchen – uses a courgette, a zucchini, but it is actually a turai recipe. Turai has the same texture and flavour as courgette-zucchini, so I used that instead to make this dish. Everybody makes it. And when I say it’s a turai dish, people are very surprised. The other thing that I do is swap all beans that are Indian beans, like shemi, for broad beans, other kinds of beans that are local to England and the continent. It doesn’t in any way damage the texture of the dish. I make this Bengali dish, niramish, which is a mix of vegetables. I do use beans, I use asparagus in them, and I use local vegetables. One thing about a local vegetable: it’s crunchier. It has not been travelling. It’s not jet lagged, it’s not taken a 13-hour flight from India to come to your table! No jet lag okra – I don’t use okra. Everybody has okra chips, I don’t. You want okra chips? Please go to all the other restaurants that are serving it. Why will I serve a delicate vegetable which requires huge amounts of plastic wrapping to stop it from being damaged to come to my table?

The customer is not always right. If they want out-of-season food, they go somewhere else; if they want to have vegetables on the table which have come from across the oceans, my restaurant will not serve it. Near Cambridge, there are fields where there are beetroot. I use that to make the classic Bengali – as the Bengalis call it, “begetable chop.” People come and eat it. Including Sabyasachi: it’s his favourite dish. He comes to my restaurant, orders vegetable chops, and says it reminds him of going to birthday parties in Calcutta. It is totally authentic, but the vegetables have come from somewhere close by. It requires more effort and it is definitely more expensive, but I want to know that I have paid the farmer the right price. I don’t want to know that some farmer in India lost all this money to the middleman.

Those were about ingredients. Do you think there are other things, from your experience with different cuisines and spaces and traditions, and from your work across the globe, that have infused your cooking over time? We’re curious about spices, styles of cooking, even sleights of hand: anything and everything.
Forget different cuisines. One of the things that people don’t figure out is that even if you and I are standing next to each other and following the same recipe, it will come out differently. Your fingerprint is different to mine. Your taste palette is different. When you chakho, it’s very important to taste – you know, hygienically, do not double dip that spoon once you taste! – and when you taste something, your entire being is savouring a flavour and you will tweak it. Ittu sa nimbu dal do, it’s a little bit spicy. I always add a touch of sugar to things because I’m half-Bengali. I also add salt when I’m browning onions. I add a bit of salt, I add a bit of sugar: I love the colour, what it does. If you eat just the caramelised onions, it’ll be a bit sticky, which comes from how I’m doing it. And then unique things come out of experience. So there’s a lot of personalisation when you cook. We should celebrate that because you are bringing something so unique. The most expensive ingredient in the dish you’re making is your time. Saffron, badams – no. Who will pay you for your time when you cook this food out of love for a loved one? I’m not talking about professional cooking, somebody will pay you there. But when you make something for your younger brother or you make something for your aunt – jo bhi ho, chota bhi ho, this is your waqt. You’ll never get this back. You are cooking. It’s like worship, it’s meditation. It is a very big thing you are doing. People forget that – that you are this beautiful thing who is giving your valuable time to satisfy someone else. Bohut badi cheez hai.

Inshallah. Please let us ask you if you have a favourite between savoury and sweet. And why, may we know? (To cook and to eat!)
Sweet. I am Bengali, yaar, I grew up in Calcutta! Without mishti, nothing works. I love sweet. I also love the seasonality of it. I absolutely love winter because for me the best thing is jalebi and rabri. I love garam gulab jamun, I love gajar ka halwa. But I adore our Bengali desserts. Calcutta’s so hot and humid – but rasgulla and sandesh you can eat anytime and you feel okay, it doesn’t sit in your stomach.

I always love the differences between different seasons, when you can eat different kinds of things. Hamare ghar mein, shaadyion mein, different food is made. Shahi tukda, which is called double ka meetha in Hyderabad. I adore that; I even make it in my restaurant.

In my mother’s family, all the different halwas used to be made. For instance, ande ka halwa. I used to hear that pyaaz ka kheer used to be made – they would boil the onions so many times you wouldn't know what it was. Abbu ke family mein, bajra ka kheer used to be made. I’ve always loved the association of desserts with festivities, like sheer korma. Sheer korma: if it’s not Eid, it doesn’t taste the same. It’s still nice, but jo wo Eid ka garam-garam sheer khurma, just when everybody is going to pray, usme kuch aur hi kism ka magic hota hai. Also, all my memories of all my friends! Diwali ka mithai. Oh, we used to wait – malpua! – we used to wait for these from our neighbours. It’s not just the festivities from my own family and tradition, but doosron ki: neighbours ka, all my friends, their festivities. So for me, sweets have always been not just the fact that they taste great – they do – it’s about the joy of kisi aur ke saath khaane ka. It’s indulgence. Bohut maza aata hai.

The industry

You’ve done fantastic things to the shape of the industry. We want to ask you therefore: while food is a great leveller, the industry is itself not democratic. We want to know how you and your comrades were treated in the restaurant scene when you began. One of our (Vighnesh’s) sisters is training to be a chef, and people’s immediate retort is: “you mean, do home science?’ When women step into the professional kitchen, it seems to invite derision, the kind that is not there when men do it’s as though the restaurant as a space is given public value because men cook in it…
I think that this is such a relevant question, and we need to question ourselves. “Hospitality” is – I mean, I can give you an example of what it is in England. It’s like an all-male Mayfair club. A gentlemen’s club, where women will never be members. It’s also very, very white. The powerful people are all white. So someone like me – when I'm running a race, and I'm trying to set up a hospitality business, I am not running the same race as a white man. He has a much easier track. My track is full of obstacles, all kinds of barriers, doors that are closed on the faces of brown women. It’s also not the same race as a white woman; white women have it a lot easier. And despite all of this, I hope everyone can take comfort in knowing that I won. I beat them all. Very much like our ancient women who’ve had to prove themselves through fire, women today in hospitality have to prove themselves: you’ve got to be better than everybody else so that people take you seriously. This is so unacceptable – that you need to prove it, you need to go through fire to show that you are good, when nowhere else do you have to do that.

I think that it is an oxymoron, in the hospitality industry because there’s nothing hospitable there. There is so much physical violence against women in hospitality, in kitchens. The fact is also that the doors are closed to older women – you’ll find a lot of young women at the front desk, you’ll find them as pastry chefs. I’m not dismissing them. I think it’s really great that they’re there. But do we find them in the hot kitchen? You won’t find them as head chefs. You won’t find them as head sommeliers. It’s almost like this is your role in hospitality; you must only play that role; you cannot shake this industry; you cannot question and you definitely cannot call it out. All of this I do because I’m unafraid.

We heard you mention, fleetingly, your dislike of how the cooking industry can often be an “old boys’ club.” Can you tell us more about that: what have you found are the problems with it, and how do you find that it has shaped the working of the industry itself? And what was it like, the process of going about setting up an all-women’s restaurant, within such a space?
The thing is that the networking that happens in hospitality is very sly. It's very subtle. You can’t see it, but – if I give you the example of recruiting, there’s a lot of self-selection. Powerful men who are in the restaurant will recruit other men whom they have met in the pub or through some football club. Most restaurants don’t have an HR department, which means a very casual way of hiring, promoting, and also firing people. There is very little accountability – and yes, people follow the rituals because you can be taken to an employment tribunal. For instance, people have contracts – but they’re zero-hour contracts. If the restaurants aren’t busy, you go home. If you think you can earn this much for a certain week to make the rent, but the restaurant is not busy, you haven’t made enough money to pay. When I was recruiting for my restaurant, I met people who came from really well-established restaurants and told me: we have a 40-hour contract but we are working 60 hours. 20 hours they work for free.

What happened with COVID is, of course, all restaurants closed. Everyone in hospitality, at least in England, stopped working. And then there was Brexit. The backbone of hospitality in England is Eastern European. Many of them left, and now there’s a massive recruitment problem. Everybody in the industry is talking about how they can’t recruit staff. We need to look at ourselves and see what our work practices are, the ethos in our kitchens. If you don’t exploit people, you pay them good wages, people come. But the mentality is to exploit, especially now because the cost of living has gone up a lot in London, the cost of gas and electricity has gone up a lot. People squeeze their staff because they are afraid that if they’re very expensive, people will not come to eat. And I understand that, but you need to be very upfront. I would rather know that this thing that I’m eating, the person who made it has been paid fairly, even if that means I pay a little extra. Maybe not everyone would think that, but you don’t want that customer who has come for a cut-price deal, knowing that you're exploiting the staff.

A related aside: we recently began watching the show that has won so many accolades, The Bear. Have you watched it? What did you think of it?
I have not watched it because I haven’t had time. Also, I kind of don’t enjoy watching anything related to food because it just upsets me. I feel that what is glorified, what is being amplified is not for me the best part about why I’m cooking. This is why I cannot bear to watch all these kinds of shows and programmes because I feel that it is so skewed towards this kind of warped, fetishised side of what it is to cook and what’s happening in the kitchens. The line between rock stars and chefs is getting blurred: all this glamorisation of what happens in the kitchen is a huge problem because what is happening in the kitchen is actually much worse. It is dark, it is dangerous, it is exploitation. It is sexual harassment of women. It is racist.

Then maybe you might like it – one of us couldn’t sit through it because the show lays bare the insanity of the hospitality industry. In any case, the sense we have is that you have reclaimed the distinction between how men and women are perceived in the kitchen. As you say in The Chef’s Table, you’re not interested in a certain kind of standardisation and you prioritise cooking with intuition and emotion. Yet you are all, of course, also professionals, in the sense of your proficiency with cooking, even in the very fact that you run a restaurant. In what ways are the particulars of your restaurant and its methods different from the others? How do you teach, for instance, when training a new cook? How do you talk about food? And tell us about how this plays out in the everyday work of the restaurant.
It is not easy to make the journey from a home cook to a restaurant cook because you need consistency. You need to follow very strict health and hygiene. You've got to follow all the regulations because this is a business where you are feeding people. It’s a learning process. We train a lot, we keep re-training. All of this literature comes in English. Many of my women do not read and write English. So we translate, we tell stories, we do recordings, and we teach them all. And we improve their English so that they can do these exams because there’s no point if they learn by rote. They need to really understand why the temperature should be this, this is the fridge temperature, certain foods we need to separate, and different equipment needs to be used for allergens

These women who didn’t go to school, who didn’t do any clerical jobs, have been able to absolutely master this. They have an incredible sense of memory: they remember in their heads, they have amazing observation skills, and they have the ability to follow things by watching. This is where their power comes in the kitchen. One of them was telling me, who can't read the numbers of buses, that she would look at her bus and say “ek danda ek ball” for 9 now, she is one of the chefs in my kitchen. This is what is so impressive. These women have been through such difficult times – they've been through starvation, they have struggled, they have picked stuff from the roads, they have grown up sleeping rough yet these powerful women.

One of them, I will never forget. In the beginning, I too didn’t have money when I opened the restaurant. Everyone was wearing t-shirts I had bought, but I thought “No, let me get chef’s coats.” And we went to a shop to buy them chef’s coats. The excitement and the tears when these women wore their coats and came out to show us! There were a lot of male chefs there picking up stuff: they were weeping and saying, “This we took as our right. We wear this with no respect. I am humbled.” This one woman came and told me, “Today I am purified of all the scars on my body. Because in this white chef’s coat, I feel like a new person.” This is a game-changer. This woman will cook with a passion that no money can buy because she has seen her dignity. I still cry when I think of this because someone who went through sexual abuse and being sold so many times, she saw in the chef’s coat her entire life back. For them, this is liberation. This is not a job. How can our food not taste amazing?

The politics of food

Any interview with you seems as though it would be incomplete without asking you a question about your Ammu. For both of you, cooking became a way to make space for women. Do you know what your mother was thinking when she decided to have the people society deemed “outsiders” to help run her catering business?
Yes, I think that my mother made challenging patriarchy so effortless: in her diamonds and her chiffon, sitting on top of her biryani deg, coming back at three in the morning, in a tempo with all the cooks. All the neighbours watched, but no one dared say anything because she was so dignified and she fed everybody, she looked after the poor, she made sure that everybody’s family was well looked after. If any woman got abandoned by her husband, she would go to the basti and bring them back to the house with the children and give them a job in her catering business which used to be, for us, a real shock: suddenly we’d see all these kids outside our house. But my mother did this in a casual manner. I saw this without really realising what she was doing.

As I grew up, I understood that my mother was the kind of person who, in the 1970s, took our driver, the aaya, and the cook to very posh restaurants and ate at the same table. And even today you cannot do it. I used to think people were staring at us because I was using a knife and fork I eat with my hands but no, they were staring at our house staff. But we didn’t think it was odd because my mother didn’t make a song-and-dance of it. Now she’s a lot older, but that sense of calling it out, fighting for justice is still very much alive in her. I really admire her. I will never be as powerful as her. I am a shadow of my mother. The only reason everybody knows about this now is because of social media and a different world. But in the 80s, she shook everything. She was all-powerful, well-known, and well-respected in Calcutta. We were all Mrs Khan’s daughter and today I am still Mrs Khan’s daughter.

It’s as though it’s in her footsteps that you were part of the UN World Food Programme. How was it working with other communities of women, in conditions that are so different, say, from your home or your restaurant?
I was very lucky to get a chance to work with women who were refugees, who have been through traumatic times. But it was uplifting to see how much optimism they had, that they really wanted to find a way to progress, to move forward. They don’t want handouts. They were looking at a world away from a refugee camp, at how they could rebuild their communities. What impressed me about these women is that they had so much conviction that it would all get better. The sad thing is that none of them are responsible for what has happened. And god, their hospitality!

We need to raise awareness and talk about hunger because hunger is used as a weapon of war even today. In war zones and famines, the woman will eat the least yet she is the one who may even be nourishing a small baby. She will feed everybody else and not feed herself. And it is the women on whom all the burden falls: to look after the whole family, such a big responsibility they take so bravely. You see this in every refugee camp, in every difficult area you get into where there's a natural disaster or a war, that women are the ones who step up. They are not the ones who called the war.

You’ve said before, regarding this, that people don’t know what a privilege it is to eat. And that’s true. But we want to ask you something else, given your experience working with the Food Programme. What’s the relationship to food there, do you think? Is it only what relieves hunger? Is it only need, or is it also desire? We’re asking this because some think that all this talk of food as taste, culture, and pleasure – these are elitist matters. We want to know what you think.
This is a really good question, really asking us to think things through. I will never, ever forget my experience, because my instinct, too, was that it was about hunger. Everybody would think that somebody who is a refugee thinks of food only as a need. But it is absolutely not just about extinguishing hunger. It is honour and dignity.

I went to a household in Jordan, in a refugee camp, and a woman told me, “Oh if I knew you were coming, I would make...” and she named the dish. I went to her kitchen; there was nothing in her kitchen; her fridge had stopped working; she had no food. There is no way that she could have made anything, but she was telling me, and she meant it, that she wished she knew I was coming. I didn't sleep that night. I went back and I told the organisers of this programme that we should take the ingredients of this dish to her house as if to surprise her. The moment she saw that box, she knew what I had done. I asked her – and this is on video, raw footage I asked her what she felt. And she said she felt empowered. She felt empowered that she could cook for me: refugee or not, people feel this empowerment through hospitality. Remember, she’s a refugee woman who has nine children who she had not fed. They had been living on tea and biscuits. The worst thing was sitting down on a mat when I could hear the children not having eaten meat for months. The whole place smelled of chicken. I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional. But my duty to her was to eat and be grateful for the smile on her face. I felt every grain of rice going down my throat that day. And I had to eat enough so she could feel she had been a proper host.

See, it is, it is a privilege to enjoy food in all varieties, to have our taste analyses, to have choices and preferences. This is a privilege, but just because you’re poor, or you’re a refugee, or you are in a war zone doesn’t mean that you can be seen as someone without the right to feel satisfied. This is in our blood, feeding people. I keep telling the Food Programme: women eat last; girls eat least. That’s a problem too. But let’s not take away from anyone the dignity of feeding somebody, just because their world has fallen apart and they’re uprooted. Another woman, I remember, in another part of the Middle East, cooked for me her son’s favourite dish, a dish she hadn’t made in years. She served it, she prayed for the life of my children, and she danced. She spun around and did this traditional dance, seeking goodness and abundance for my children.

There are so many things there... You’re saying that hospitality can be violent, that it is gendered. You’re saying also that there are really bad conditions in which people don’t get to relish food. But that doesn’t mean only some elevated people think about taste or hospitality. We can’t simply say “Be happy you have two meals a day.”
Around four years ago, I sat next to a doctor at an event who told me he’d been operating on little girls in Yemen, this was well before things got as bad as now, and he was taking out stones and mud that had blocked their intestines. Their mothers had fed them soil so that they would stop crying out of hunger. This is a problem. Nobody is denying it. But that’s been forced upon them. We should never ever think that we are different from someone in a war zone. You and I might be put in that situation tomorrow. Does it change who we are and what we want? Our circumstances have changed. They also have the same instincts and wants. To say otherwise is dehumanising to the poor and the suffering – by not recognising the fact that they are human beings equal to you.

Thank you. Here’s another question about food politics. A scene in The Chef’s Table has you commenting: “Two brown rice? A bit boring, don’t you think?” and you add, “Enjoy life, my friend.” We loved it. Have you seen the recent trends in diets and food regimens, and discussions certainly fueled by social media about the healthiness, or rather the lack of it, in Indian cuisines? All the talk of there being such less protein, so much starch, unhealthy lifestyles and body types… What do you make of all of this?
This is racist. It’s racist because also it’s ignorant. I think people in the West think that we bathe in ghee and cream because this is the kind of creamy ghee-filled sauces that a lot of curry houses, and high street restaurants serve – so this is their impression. Also, the abundant use of dairy. In England, milk, butter, and cream are super cheap – and artificially done because they’re squeezing the market of the dairy farmers, which is so wrong. But the abundant use of all of this – and how much nuts: we used to save pistachios and almonds for weddings or when someone’s getting married, you add that to kind of impress the in-laws, but now you will find all the dishes covered in nuts. So the bad reputation has come in the West from people overusing expensive ingredients because they can get it for cheap. Of course in India, no one eats the way the social media depicts us. I mean, I never ate butter chicken except in a restaurant. If I wanted to eat naan, I had to go to a restaurant. Even daal makhani was a treat: you went to the dhaba to eat it. But in every Indian restaurant, it’s served as if this is our food with that dollop of melting butter on top.

So if you step back and think, this is poorly managed PR. All the other cuisines, the spokespeople are all very positive and upbeat. We are too busy dragging each other down. We’re too busy using food as a way to fight with different communities. People can get lynched because of something they eat. People have used food like, “I will not sit at this table and eat this stuff.” This is all harming us. We do not unite around the table. I don’t have to eat what you want to eat. My husband is Bengali. He loves karela. I make it for him. I sit there making a face while he has it. But he is free to have it. I don’t have to have it. I don’t look down on him. We all must understand that we should be grateful to god to eat. Instead, we are so busy trying to build walls between one community and another, between people.

This whole thing of what is healthy, and what is not: yes, we need to have a healthy diet and yes, it can affect your health. Diabetes is a big problem in our community. These are serious issues. But this we should fight unitedly. We are an amazing country with such diversity, such beautiful cuisines, so many different cultures. All of this gets pushed back: people hijack these food issues to promote certain political things. We should talk about health, but not in a sneering, dismissing way where you push aside people. Unfortunately, it always seems like the elite is looking down on people of less means and this is a factor in why this is a divisive debate: because there's an elitism, and a sneering tone which is not nice.

And finally…
We’ve gathered that you’re planning to expand your restaurant to other places to Paris, to New York City. What about India? Is that in the plans? Hypothetically, if you do, what do you think it would look like, to run a restaurant like you do in London in India? What do you imagine would change, and what would not?
Well, it is only a thought experiment. Because I don’t think I would be able to set up anything in India, or in New York. I don’t see enough of my children, my cat, or my husband in England, not necessarily in that order. I’d like to do things in Europe if I were to expand. But if I were to return to India, I would do exactly what I’m doing at Darjeeling Express, because home cooks and housewives are not represented at the top-end Indian restaurants. Darjeeling Express is on the Michelin Guide at the moment; we’ve been in it right from the time we opened. That’s the kind of place I’d want to open, with home cooks working in them. We will serve ghar ka khana, which is itself so elevated in flavour and will be presented to you ungarnished. I will give you ghar ka khana without making it look French or putting all the flowers in the world on top of it. I am brown. My food is brown. So it wouldn’t be different from Darjeeling Express, because this is a passion project. I cannot take anything forward with a business mind or pragmatism. I am totally unfiltered. I cannot fake anything. I cannot open a restaurant that at some level I might be embarrassed by, that could make me feel awkward. I can’t talk about such a place with a similar force. I need to feel connected to every brick of my restaurant, to the people who cook there, to the food being prepared. Everything means something to me. This is the only way I can run a restaurant.

Asma Khan in conversation with Vir Sanghvi at the 2024 Jaipur Literature Festival. | Image courtesy: Edelman India.