Asma Khan Won’t Stop Shaking the World

Khan, the first British chef to be featured on “Chef’s Table,” opened the wildly popular Darjeeling Express in 2017. She just closed it—on purpose.

Asma Khan Won’t Stop Shaking the World

In 2017, Asma Khan opened Darjeeling Express, the only Indian restaurant in the world run by all women.

Photo by Urszula Sołtys

On July 4, when millions of Americans were and were not celebrating the Declaration of Independence, which was approved by the Continental Congress on that day in 1776, establishing the United States, chef Asma Khan was some 4,500 miles away in London, marking a declaration of her own. She was closing Darjeeling Express, one of the most well-known Indian restaurants of the past decade, at arguably the height of its popularity.

It wasn’t a problem with bookings. Lunches were full, dinners were full, diners had been showing up to the cornflower blue door in Covent Garden to pose for photos outside, reservation or not. Sadiq Kahn, Mayor of London, had said earlier this summer that if “he had to single out one place to eat” in the city, he would pick Darjeeling Express. Riz Ahmed, Dan Levy, Kumail Nanjiani, Cobie Smulders, and Paul Rudd were also fans; had all eaten Asma’s famous Kolkata-style biryani, thick with chicken thighs and ribbons of sweet caramelized onions, wheeled into the dining room in an aluminum degh (pot) sealed with dough, steam escaping like a secret. She had just published Ammu, a second book with recipes and anecdotes, a 278-page tribute to her mother. But despite the accolades, the awards, and yes, the fame, something needed disrupting.

Asma, a gender equality activist and the first British chef to be featured on the Netflix series Chef’s Table, has always run a kitchen of only women cooks who had never cooked professionally before joining her team. And at this location, where they moved during the pandemic after outgrowing their original space in Soho, which had an open kitchen, the women were out of sight. The cooks were cramped together in a basement kitchen, invisible to diners who were folding blistering paratha and spooning prawn malai curry over rice, Jubin Nautiyal and Asees Kaur crooning in Hindi from speakers overhead. Kaatun kaise raatan, o saawre? Jiya nahi jaata, sun bawre. I’m at a loss at how to spend my nights, handsome lover. I can’t bear to live or listen.

Asma had been feeling it for a while, this tug toward a change. This pace could not become permanent. Nor could this invisibility. After all, you do not get to eat her food and not see her and these women, making up the only Indian restaurant in the world run by all women, all immigrants with no professional cooking experience. You don’t get to just take part of her, of them, on an island nation where just one in four chefs are women. Where women who made—make—up the hospitality industry have been walked further into insecurity during the pandemic. What would something bigger look like? It’s one thing to hold the door; it’s another to hold the door and help people through, Asma believes. And so she said, Enough. She will do better.

Asma Khan does not disagree if you say she has always been pushing for something. Born in Kolkata in 1969, Khan is a descendant of the Rajput tribe on her father’s side and Muslim Bengali royal families on her mother’s. As a second daughter, Asma was considered by many outside of her family a quiet disappointment to a society that places more value, more priority, on men’s wants and needs. A first-born girl is sad—a second girl is a disaster, she will say. But inside her family, Asma was never treated differently. Women were not treated differently. (Still: an emotional tussle between her family’s pride in her and society’s lack of it.) Instead, women were sought out, given space, a lesson Asma learned early on from her mother, Faizana, the third of five daughters herself, whom Asma says shook the world gently: As the first woman entrepreneur in the family, she founded a company called Lazeez Catering, supplying food for parties and weddings, for the Royal Calcutta Turf Club and the Tollygunge Club. To help her cook, Faizana hired women who had been abandoned by their husbands, families, associations.

Asma stood with her mother and these women in the kitchen, tasting biryani and chicken rezala, deciding whether or not the dishes needed more seasoning. Off she’d go with her mother to the bazaar, the spice shops, the fish market. This was her food education. During the first rains of the monsoons, Asma would sit with her two siblings by the open windows of their home, sipping chai and tearing into crunchy paz ke pakora (onion fritters), her father humming ragas inspired by the monsoons. On her own, in between cricket games in the street, a young Asma would buy phuchka, jhalmuri, churmur. More food education, from stalls that Asma calls a great equalizer—one of the few places Indians eat next to each other, class and caste be damned. But to be honest, Asma never actually, really, learned to cook. It wasn’t a priority. There were always other people doing it.

When Asma married and moved to Cambridge to join her husband in December of 1991, at age 21, it was food she missed first after family. She had never been away from home; never eaten a vegetable out of season. Most everything about England felt cold: the weather, the welcome, the way she felt meals were approached, as sustenance first and not a time to connect. Her husband—who had told her before they married that he didn’t believe in traditional gender roles, and that he would cook for her, hadn’t mentioned that his ability to actually cook was also limited. He was a tutor, on the road often, and so for the first time in her life, Asma found herself trying to cook, and eating, alone. If you had to assign a word to it, she’d say she was bereft. Riding her bike one day along the River Cam, she stopped after smelling paratha frying in ghee, slowing down, practically doubled over by the homesickness she felt. She thought about knocking on the stranger’s door but didn’t. Instead, she and her husband talked and made a decision: Asma would return to India. She wanted to really learn to make food.

Back in Kolkata, Asma practiced under the eye of her mother and Haji Saheb, the family cook: She oiled her hands and mixed minced beef and lamb to roll tightly for koftas, turned spiced haddock filets carefully in vegetable oil, and dripped tempering oil and chiles, garlic, and cumin over warm dal (brown lentils). Once, after making shami kabob, Asma’s mother tasted it and approved, serving it to the staff who had been watching, women celebrating other women. May Allah bless your hands, Haji Saheb told Asma. On hard days she still thinks of this moment.

In Cambridge a year later, Asma was heartened and hardened, slightly, to the country. It was still cold, but at least she could cook. But comforting as it was, cooking wasn’t all she could let herself do. Outside, she still felt she had to be good. To be so good no one could ignore her or think she was a burden. And so she was. Over the next two decades, she became the first woman in her family to attend college. She qualified as a lawyer; completing a doctorate in British Constitutional Law at King’s College, London. She had two children, boys. This was what the outside world saw.

Quietly, simultaneously, she built her private world, inviting the South Asian nannies and housewives she met at her children’s school over for dinner. Building what she missed most. Dinner became dinners, and by 2012, dinners had become supper clubs: For five years, when her husband traveled, she cooked—for 10, 20, 30, 40 people, while her sons did homework in the next room. She cooked because it helped with the feeling of community. She did not make a profit; instead, initially, she made the cool, bubblegum-pink beetroot raita, the crunchy palm-sized dahi puchkas, the mirchi ka saalan (curried chile peppers) for charity. There was no confidence there—no idea that anyone would ever pay to eat her food. It wasn’t until someone else told her they would buy it that she even considered putting a price on it.

By 2016, Asma’s supper clubs had become too popular to hold at home, and so she moved: a pop-up here, a pop-up there. In 2017, she opened Darjeeling Express, a 56-seat restaurant in Soho named after a train she rode as a child. In so many ways, it was an extension of Lazeez Catering: Asma hired women who were South Asian immigrants, women who had never trained in professional kitchens, who at the time had other jobs, supplementing their work by cooking with Asma for the joy of it.

This structure was intentional, as with most things Asma. She thought, Why are home cooks not considered good enough—good enough to be paid, to work in internationally lauded restaurants? After all, she says, travel in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka and a woman is overseeing the cooking at any home. But in restaurants in these same countries, it’s men. And that bothers her. It’s not about ability, then, but about status. About women’s labor that goes unregarded, unheralded, unrecognized. Not at Darjeeling Express. Together, she wants you to know, they started from ashes, these women. They rose. They stepped in and cooked with rhythm together, a dance, slowly but surely, putting what they knew into smooth alur dum (sweet potato curry), tangy Hyderabadi tamarind dal (yellow lentils), tongue-tingling chutneys of tomato and lime; smoked sesame and red chile. Together, these women were shaking the world gently. And people came to experience it.

Asma Khan believes that many of the things she wishes to see in all of the world’s restaurants are already present in hers. It isn’t hubris. Just consider. At Darjeeling Express, everyone is paid equally. Like her mother all those years ago, she is committed to the idea of compassion; she has financed every funeral of any parent or grandparent of a person who works with her. How could she not? It’s a small gesture, but these things matter. Instead of an employee spending time with that person, they were spending time with Asma. You can’t compensate for that loss, but you can at least show some respect. You can be kind and humane and still make it in the industry, she wants young people to know. Hospitality should mean being hospitable to everyone, all the time, at every level.

Sustainability is also important to Asma. But she doesn’t mean sustainability in the way of Goop and the amorphous “green.” It’s almost more natural than that. Growing up in India, Asma ate what she could when she could. Eating in season, making do with what was available. That awareness has never left her. She cannot stand food waste; has always packed leftovers for guests to take home or give to someone else. She refuses to garnish. The carrot shaving so easily flicked off a piece of chicken, pushed to the side of a plate only to be dumped later? It could be someone’s food. There is a cost to its production. And she thinks a lot about production—doesn’t import vegetables and never will. Yes, there are spices and lentils and rice from India. She still uses gas to cook where she has to. But she’s always running the numbers, asking: What are the emissions on this? She doesn’t want the air miles, doesn’t want the carbon footprint. The people who will be most severely affected by the resulting climate change often have less to begin with, and she thinks about this. About people in California, where 8 of the state’s 10 largest fires on record have happened within the past five years. About those in Louisiana, where the flood risk will “skyrocket” over the next 30 years. And people in India, where chances of severe heat waves have increased by at least 30 times since the 19th century. There is so much conversation around organic food, farm-to-table food, and she wishes there would be more about food waste and carbon emissions.

Asma knows she has been slower to speak about the sustainability element of her business, in part because of this push-pull of confidence. It’s a funny thing, that. Growing up, as a daughter of proud parents, she knew her worth. But society told her she was less than. And in London, when she started cooking, there wasn’t anybody who looked like her—sounded like her—running a restaurant. Even today, five years into the official life of Darjeeling Express, there isn’t another Indian restaurant run by all women. Coming from a poorer country in the East, in the past, she felt hesitant about having something to teach the West, which is so often held up as the leader, the example. But she thinks there are lessons in India, ones she has taken and applied to Darjeeling Express. In the way ingredients are respected and recycled, in the way she looks after her staff. The way they look after her.

Would she have wanted to know all of this decades ago, when she first started hosting dinner parties—that something better was coming? Maybe an inkling, but actually, well, probably not. She wouldn’t have had this strength of conviction if she hadn’t been so undercut, underpriced, undervalued as a woman, as an immigrant, as a second daughter. Gold is refined by fire.

It is still hard. There’s no doubt about that. When she was looking for a newer, bigger space to hold the second edition of Darjeeling Express, she was asked constantly: Where’s the business advisor? Where’s the man with the money? But she kept pushing, heartened by the words her father would tell her over and over when she was younger: If you think your night will be endless, the dawn will never come. So she remembers that the sun always does rise, that light will somehow get through. Eventually, she found a space. Now she’s left it, and in this hunt for a bigger space, is still being greeted the same way—with the same questions, the same doubts.

Asma is also not naive enough to think she can make all of this change alone. She’s fine with being a pebble that hits the water, breaking it, starting a ripple. On previous Sundays, when Darjeeling Express was closed, she offered it for use, free of charge, for aspiring women chefs. She hosted a café in a Yazidi refugee camp in 2019, training young women. When she moved Darjeeling Express from Soho to Covent Garden, she ensured that the remainder of the lease would be secured for Imad Alarnab, a Syrian refugee and chef who had his own pop-up around town and who now runs Imad’s Syrian Kitchen. She is considering starting and sponsoring a trade union—not for restaurant owners, but for workers. And in this next iteration of Darjeeling Express, she wants to employ even more women, women who lost work during the pandemic. She also wants to train women to manage and run restaurants, not only work in the kitchens. She sees it as an incubator, with only one motion: forward. She doesn’t look left or right but runs her own race. What she sees in front of her is victory. That’s where she’s going, whether the next Darjeeling Express opens in 2 months or 12.

Eventually, of course, even after it reopens, Darjeeling Express will sometime close for good. Asma can’t cook forever. But that future, even if she may not live to experience it, still holds excitement. Because those seeds are being planted now. There are people who will see her skin and hear her story and be encouraged to try something of their own. They’ll remember that it was hard for Asma for a long time and now it’s a little better. And hopefully they’ll remember that it isn’t your gender or your class that matters, but whose life you changed.

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Katherine LaGrave is a Deputy Editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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