Asma Khan Q&A: ‘The most expensive ingredient in any dish is your time’
Photograph courtesy of Asma Khan
The chef and cookbook author on how her upbringing inspired the all-women Darjeeling Express kitchen
Asma Khan is an acclaimed Indian-British chef, cookbook author and the owner of Darjeeling Express in central London. Her culinary career began in 2012, running a private supper club, hosted at her home in Earl’s Court. As the popularity of her events grew, she moved the club out of her home and took up a residency at a Soho pub, The Sun& 13 Cantons.
Khan opened Darjeeling Express in Soho in 2017, serving up a variety of Mughlai and Bengali specialties, inspired by her own family’s recipes. The restaurant briefly moved to Covent Garden during the pandemic, but that proved temporary as the layout of the building meant that her team of all-women chefs were “hidden” in the basement. Darjeeling Express returned to Kingly Court, Soho in February in a new space with an open kitchen and enough space for 90 covers.
Khan has appeared on the Netflix show Chef’s Table, which profiles respected culinary figures from around the world. She is also an honorary fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford University.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
Your mum ran a catering business with a full female staff in Kolkata in the late 1970s. How has she reacted to your success?
My mum has been incredible. We are very close and she is very proud of me. She genuinely has an admiration for what I do, because she understands the complexity of running a food business and that every day is challenging.
It’s well known that you run an all-women kitchen of staff who began as home cooks. How do you find the right people to recruit?
Many of the women working in the kitchen today have been with me since 2012, when I was running supper clubs out of my house. Some of them were nannies at the local school. I literally just had to find one person. Then, through them, I found a whole network of people. It’s a South Asian thing.
The youngest person in the kitchen is 20, and the oldest is 68. The average age of the women who do the cooking is 50. The younger ones do a lot of the preparation work, as they are still in training. We are a collective. Almost all chefs, mainly men, like to present themselves as the great genius doing everything single-handedly. I don’t. It’s always a team effort. It takes a lot of people to make a restaurant successful and I work with an incredible team.
Did you collaborate with the women when coming up with the menu?
The menu is mostly recipes from my family, but we do have momos on the menu, which are the Darjeeling dumplings. Half of my team are Nepalese, so we have those because it celebrates who they are.
You were previously in the press a lot because the Hollywood actor Paul Rudd kept coming to the restaurant. Have you had any other famous visitors recently?
I find it incredibly sweet any time a celebrity makes the time to come and eat here. Many of them will message me before they even get to London and request to book a table. Malala recently came by with her husband. She is such a wonderful person. She went into the kitchen and met all the cooks. She said she felt like she had gone home. She has faced many challenges, but she has risen above them with a kind of humility and grace that makes me feel proud of my culture when I see her.
How has 2023 been so far and what are your plans for the rest of the year?
We reopened the restaurant in February, which was a real struggle because running costs have doubled, owing to the current financial crisis. I’ve also been travelling back and forth from India, because my brother was very unwell. Sadly, we lost him last December.
Now I’m trying to pick up the pieces of my personal life and my professional life because there were a lot of things I had put on hold while my brother was sick. I have another book coming out, which is about history, politics and food, and more television appearances, but definitely not another restaurant.
There has been a rise in Muslim-run supper clubs in recent years. Why are initiatives like these so important?
I’m very happy to see this. Irrespective of whether someone pays you or not, cooking is an act of generosity, because the most expensive ingredient you are putting into a dish is your time. Supper clubs are a great way to communicate who you are, especially for people who are from less-understood communities, including Muslims. We tend to be more insular and family oriented. We gather in big clans and we eat together, but we do not have this public face of our food. Supper clubs give us the opportunity to use food as a language of love. When people gather around a table it allows barriers to come down.
Many curry houses are facing chef shortages, but most do not employ women. Do you think the representation of South Asian women in professional kitchens could improve in the future?
I don’t think this will change, because the bias is too great. We need to change the narrative. Statistics on the employment of women in these restaurants are not available, but it’s not really improving and it’s completely unacceptable.
From Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, it is a woman or a matriarch looking after the food in the house, but in every restaurant, it is a man cooking. Restaurants are closing because they don’t have chefs, when, actually, you have someone with massive cooking experience at home, but you’re not willing to bring them on.
Some social enterprises are attempting to make change, such as Oitij-jo Kitchen in Tower Hamlets, which employs local Bangladeshi women.
I appreciate and applaud all female-gatherings, but there is a much bigger picture here. The problem is that the change is only happening at this grassroots level. This is not to undermine their work — I also have an all female kitchen — but we need to have better representation of women in normal kitchens too. Why can’t men and women work together?
Do you hope that your success might inspire others?
I hope it shows people that you can run a business honourably. The one thing that drives my business is a deep sense of justice. There is no justification to underpay staff, to treat staff badly or to rip off your suppliers. You don’t have to choose between running an ethical business and being successful — you can be both. I am both.
Can you describe your ideal three-course meal?
To start, keema samosa. It has to be beef keema because lamb has too much fat. Then pilau with peas and chicken korma. For dessert, I would have shahi tukda. But it has to be my shahi tukda, I have to make it fresh. The bread is fried in ghee, then you soak it in rabri, a sweet, thickened milk. You take it out while it’s still warm and put more rabri on it. This is how my family makes it. It’s like French toast on steroids. To drink, I’ll have sweet masala chai. I don’t like this garbage about “no sugar” — you need the sweet to balance things out.
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