Indian born, British chef Asma Khan has been heralded for her commitment to training immigrant women who form the backbone of her all-female kitchen at Darjeeling Express. ‘We serve the simple food of the women who are in their graves,’ salutes Asma Khan. “We’re trying to explain the narrative of women and their roles, inbeing the custodian of recipes, of nourishing generations of people.” She pays homage to the first woman in her life in her latest cookbook “Ammu: Indian Home Cooking to Nourish Your Soul.”
Khan her mother’s upbringing in India prior to the revolution. Coming from a conservative family with a traditional upbringing, she didn’t go to college and became a grandmother by the time she was 32 years old. The chef recalls the poetry of monsoon season and her similar beginnings to her mother of starting a catering business from home.
Khan says that television has intimidated home cooks about making Indian food. The first two chapters of her book are her childhood favorites and recipes she made as she learned to cook.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Talk to us a little about your mom, for context give us what year she was born.
Asma Khan: She was born in 1943, before India got independent, and she saw the country transforming. But for her her life remained pretty traditional. She was in a very conservative family, she never went to college. She got married very young. She had my sister when she was 18. And she was a grandmother at 32. That’s how you know things have happened for generations in my family.
Tell us about your dad.
My dad is a very interesting character. He is a passionate reader of poetry and very into his philosophy. He’s an engineer by training, very different from my mother, from a very different region of India – a wheat-growing region. He still finds looking at a fish eye really terrifying because that's a landlocked area where he grew up in very simple food days. But he’s deeply spiritual, and makes it fun to talk to him, he’s a real character. I think my real education has been having conversations with my father.
The images in this book are absolutely beautiful, not just objectively beautiful to the eye like beautifully photographed.They're chosen with memory and emotion in mind. You talk about the jewelry box that your mother gave you when you left the house to marry. You say that this latest cookbook is like that jewelry box. How so?
It was all this imagery that came out in the darkness of pandemic and lockdown. I had this jewelry box in front of me, and it's then when I realized that we are given this very physical gift of ancestral vintage jewelry. In my family, I come from a royal family, so for us some of the jewelry is very old and very, very precious. It's given to us this box as a goodbye gift to you as you leave the doorstep of your house. But then I realized that actually what I'm taking away is the food memories, are the aromas of my kitchen, the sound of my mother, cooking and laughing the songs that you were listening to. And all those gatherings of the clan to celebrate weddings, all those recipes are there in my book. And that box, which had the jewelry, is actually a box full of recipes.
You talk a lot about the monsoon season. Why do you associate so much childhood comfort food with monsoons?
You need to experience the monsoon in Bengal – the rain is relentless. But that comes after months of parched heat, where the ground is cracked up, and everything is dry, bone dry. So when the rains come, the first monsoons, my father would grab us all, my mother shrieking, and he used to take us out to the stand and watch the rain, and get soaked through and through. That fragrance of the earth – there is no flower, there's no perfume, there's nothing that can describe that sweet smell of the earth, when it starts getting soaked. Then, all the birds are dancing. In my father's home, when it rained, the peacocks would come out and stand under the trees and dance. That kind of joy when you feel the earth taking a deep breath. It's a real emotion.
Give us a dish that just brings you back to those memories.
The pakoras – Onion fritters – are very simple potato balls dipped in chickpea flour. Because also with monsoons came lack of food in the house. The bazaars closed, so then you suddenly were left on a diet of whatever grains you had in the house and eggs – because the person who sold the eggs cycled through with the floods. We started off with having one egg each. As the monsoon got worse, and we got trapped into the house, we were down to half an egg each. You felt like you had some huge adventure.
Your family had a family cook. What was your mother's role in the kitchen? Tell us a bit about her catering business and how she started that?
She never went to college. No one in the family, no female in the family ever worked. She was the first entrepreneur in the family, and she decided to do catering. She began this catering business in a very small way. Very kind of in an organic way. Incredible that reminded me of how I started. I started my house. She started in the house. And she slowly built up her business – she put a little outside kitchen and she expanded, and she became one of the best known caterers in Calcutta. And what was so unique about her – she would personally serve and she never left till everyone had eaten. And I remember going back at three in the morning sitting on top of an empty biryani pot rack, which is full of bones that she'd got for the street dogs, coming in at three in the morning. Because the dogs knew bones were coming they were chasing all the neighbors and turning the lights on. She was just in a silk sari wearing her diamond vintage jewelry. She’d just jump off this truck and just walk into the house. No one would gossip about her, they just watched and all.
For many people who have never cooked Indian food at home. Your recipes might seem like a project, even if they're quite simple. What kind of advice can you give?
Please do not get intimidated because a lot of television where you see people cooking Indian food is unnecessarily complicated. The good thing about this book is the first two chapters: One of them is my childhood dishes. And the second one is a dish I first cooked when I was learning how to cook. I learned to cook this way. I didn't go to culinary school. I wasn't a sous chef. I didn't pick up cooking from watching master chef for anything else. I literally stood in the kitchen and watched how to cook. So I go through the steps,and I think if you look at a recipe and read it, then it's your recipe. You tweak it, you turn it to your taste buds to what you have in your house. This recipe is no longer mine. It is yours.
I love that in the front of the book, you have all kinds of recipe suggestions depending upon what our needs might be. And I have to say that my favorite category is cooking for your future in-laws.
Those are really foolproof. They look spectacular, but they're actually not that difficult to make. You don't need to tell them how easy it was. They’re going to think you’re so smart.
Pick a future in-law recipe and tell us about it.
All the biryanis are actually very easy. Especially the prawn biryani because it just looks so spectacular. It is so, so easy. My kids make it. So it's these kinds of dishes which are really easy. Also all the kebab dishes are easy – but you marinate and you cook last-minute, it looks spectacular. And then all the aroma and the drama, you need all of that when you're trying to impress people, you need bang for your buck. So you've got to have some theater, some drama, but it should be something that was so easy for you. So that is also very important, which is why I also picked recipes in categories like this, so that your kitchen doesn't look like a bomb site. You look great. You don't look like you're sweaty and you're panting. Everything's in control. And that's it. They're going to be so impressed by you.
For those of us who aren't so familiar with the way that you have championed immigrant women. Can you talk about the restaurant model that you created and why?
My restaurant is mid-level fine dining. The only female-owned, all-female Indian restaurant in the world. There is no restaurant like this even in India. Incredibly in every home you go to in South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, you will find the matriarch is in charge of cooking or of ordering the food and making sure everyone is fed. In every restaurant you go to in the East or in the West. That is mid-level. You know, fine dining is expensive. They're all men who trained to cook, not in the kitchens of their mothers. They trained to cook in culinary school. Everyone's CV is identical. They trained to be professional chefs. Patriarchy runs deep in our culture. You would never find a boy in a kitchen. They would always be shooed out. It was only the girls who were in the kitchen. In my culture, women eat last, girls eat least. Our food is very futile. We have this idea of hot rice being served to the men.
The problem with having been an agrarian society – this you will see in Colombia in Mexico – the women serve the men. The men do not cook the food. So this is a problem. And I wanted to see if we could do it if we could be that unusual restaurant where women cooked the food of their ancestors, uncomplicated food. We didn't put edible flying nitrogen on it. We didn't try to make our food look French. We didn't try to make anything look different. We serve the simple food of the women who are in their graves, as a salaam and a salute to the women who never celebrated. This is a battle cry. This is not a restaurant. This is a political movement. We're trying to explain the narrative of women and their roles in being the custodian of recipes of nourishing generations of people. I have three grandmother's now working. They fed them and they have life experience. They don't have a certificate to show that they're chefs.
A shrimp biryani is a great alternative to a traditional meat-based biryani, and instead of shrimp you can substitute pieces of firm, white fish, such as cod, or even salmon. The preparation is in two parts. First, you need to make a spiced shrimp base, which is layered with rice, saffron, and spices, and then the rice and shrimp are gently cooked together to merge the flavors. As with all seafood dishes, the most important thing is not to overcook the shrimp.
- 3 1/2 cups (700 g) basmati rice
- 7 tsp salt
- 1 Indian bay leaf (tej patta) or regular bay leaf 4 green cardamom pods
- 2 cloves
- 2 in (5 cm) piece of cassia bark (or cinnamon stick)
- 1 tbsp ghee
- 1 tsp saffron strands
- scant 1/2 cup (100 ml) whole milk
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 cup (100 g) thinly sliced white onion
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 4 tbsp ghee
- 6 oz (175 g) onions, processed to a paste in a food processor
- 1 tbsp ginger paste
- 1 tsp garlic paste
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp chile powder
- 3 small red tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 lb (500 g) raw peeled shrimp, deveined
- Wash the rice in a bowl of cold water, moving your hand in gentle circular movements in one direction to avoid breaking the delicate tips of the rice (if they are broken they will form a glue-like starch that will make the rice sticky). Change the water several times until it is no longer cloudy. Soak the rice in cold water for 1–3 hours.
- Put the saffron in a small bowl, warm the milk to tepid, and pour over the saffron. Set aside.
- To make the shrimp layer, heat the oil in a large heavy-based sauté pan over medium–high heat. To check that the oil is hot enough, take a slice of onion and dip the tip into the oil—it should immediately start to sizzle. If not, wait for a few more minutes before adding all the sliced onion. Sprinkle the sugar over the onion and fry for 15–20 minutes or until caramelized. As the onion starts to turn golden brown, keep stirring to ensure it fries evenly. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the onion to a plate, leaving as much of the oil in the pan as possible. Separate the onion with a fork and spread across the plate so it crisps as it cools.
- Put the pan back over medium–high heat and add the ghee, quickly followed by the onion paste, then the ginger and garlic pastes, and stir for 2–3 minutes. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, and chile powder and stir for a minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and pour about ¾ in (2 cm) of water over the contents of the pot, then cook until the liquid starts to reduce and thicken, and you can see oil at the edges of the tomato mixture.
- Add the shrimp and cook over high heat for 2–5 minutes, stirring to ensure all the shrimp are cooked, but taking care not to overcook them. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside, uncovered. There should be a thick clingy sauce around the shrimp.
- For the rice, boil a kettle and fill a large pot up to three-quarters of its depth with boiling water. Drain the rice and add it to the boiling water together with the salt, bay leaf, cardamoms, cloves, and cassia. Boil the rice until it is three-quarters cooked (this should not take more than 5 minutes). This is important as it will go through another cooking process. To test, remove one grain of rice from the boiling water and press it between your fingers. The outside should be soft but there should still be a hard inner core in the grain of rice. When the rice reaches this stage, drain in a colander and then spread the rice out on a couple of large plates to prevent it from continuing to cook.
- To assemble the biryani you will need a heavy-based pot with a tight-fitting lid. First add half the rice. Add ½ teaspoon of the ghee and half the saffron milk and stir gently to ensure the ghee and milk spread evenly. Then add the shrimp mixture, including any sauce. Sprinkle a quarter of the caramelized onions on top of the shrimp layer followed by the remaining rice. Add the remaining saffron milk and the remaining ghee. Sprinkle another quarter of the caramelized onions on top. Put the pot over high heat and wait until you can see some steam coming through from more than one area. When the steam is coming through evenly, cover the pan tightly and turn the heat to low. After 15 minutes, turn off the heat and leave undisturbed for 10 minutes.
- Remove the lid and gently mix the layers. Garnish with the remaining onions before serving.