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story

Asma’s Story

Asma Khan

Lesson time 49 min

Asma’s Story

Asma Khan | The Food That Made Me
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I never call myself a chef. I always call myself a home cook. If I wanna go and make myself sound very fancy, I have a Ph.D. in law. I’ll say I’m Dr. Khan. I’m not gonna call myself Chef Khan. I don’t do that. Because chef is a professional training. Anyone who’s seen me cutting tomatoes or onions on a knife will definitely tell you I’m no chef. You know, I don’t have knife skills. I don’t have all these kind of training, but I have a big heart. I love to cook. I’m working very hard to create magic out of ingredients. Look at this. Tada! I’m a home cook. I’m very proud of that. I have spent more of my life in London and every time I’ve come back to Kolkata, I feel a huge sense of homecoming. I look at the trees. I look at the flowers. I even look at the birds and I feel that I am one of them. I don’t belong anywhere else. When my marriage was arranged, I met my husband for the first time and I left Kolkata. From the soil and the rich heritage of the city, suddenly I was nobody. And in this very cold, silent, lonely London, all I had was memories of Kolkata, the food, the people I met, memories is something that I took with me. If you actually look at the culture of Kolkata, food is absolutely the most valuable thing for people here. Asma grew up in that environment where stories and food were partners. They were lovers. They were inseparable. Parts of Kolkata, time stopped. Not one single shop has changed. There’s a rhythm, there’s a beat. You watch it and you hear it. It’s the way their hands move silently without drama, everything precise. They’re not even looking down but this is I think the beauty of Kolkata. When Asma went to London and she actually moved, I think in 1991, she was incredibly lonely. London or England can be a very punishing place. And that is when she started to cook. Going to UK was a shock. My husband is an academic, very liberal. He said, I don’t believe in gender roles. I can cook, I’ll feed you. I thought this is life. I’m gonna go. He’s gonna cook for me, look after me. I’m gonna be the princess. That was not the case. Not only was he a bad cook, he didn’t know how to make rice. The rice was like glue. Same thing every day, every day. I was standing there realizing I failed. He couldn’t cook. I was starving. I was so unhappy. I failed in life. Then I knew food is my way home. That I’m going to learn how to cook out of this really difficult place. I was gonna cook. I was able to use that, memories, the feelings for the city, for home to create a new life where Kolkata and the food of the city was the base on which I built it. I needed to leave to understand the power of food. My DNA is the food I ate, the food of my childhood. I had to leave to know this. She could have been a lawyer. She could have been anything. Why food? Because it was her love. It became her identity. Asma made Kolkata and Kolkata’s basic food international. And that was the Darjeeling Express success story. One of the most interesting streets in Kolkata is Zakaria Street. It’s just fascinating. It’s narrow, it’s bustling, and it’s a really, really exciting place to be, to eat, or just to walk around. I remember this place where we used to come in very early in the morning and have paratha and then chai. Zakaria Street, it is the melting pot of lots of cultures. On one end of the street is a temple. The other end is Nakhoda Mosque, one of the most biggest mosques in Bengal. Do you know this was actually historically called the Black Town? So there’s the Black Town and the White Town. So Black Town is this. This is where the natives used to live. And the White Town is Dalhousie where the bureaucrats and the English used to live. I had no idea. Huh? Kounteya has just got a fascinating amount of information on food, on people, on the city, and all the good things about Kolkata Kounteya symbolizes. So this is truly that melting point of culture, music, literature, and food. I met Asma in 2013 in London. I was posted there as a journalist. And then I heard about the fact that there was this lady from Kolkata who was doing a pop-up with three students from the Asian continent. Suddenly I see he’s knocking on my window and he’s waving. We have a drink in India called Thums Up. It’s like Coke. And we in Kolkata love Thums Up. I would give him Thums Up. I’d give him biryani, and he’d eat outside. And this is how the friendship started. When I had her biryani, when I have the golgappas, the chaats, that she used to make in London, she actually took the real flavor of Kolkata because she was so proud of it. She didn’t adapt it to a foreign requirement. She took it there and she put it just how it was. The stories were real. The flavors were real. And that was the success story. What you see over here on the street is the influence of the spice trade of the traders that came into Bengal. [Kounteya] Right. From Central Asia, from Turkey, from the Middle East, and they brought their food. India is a diverse country. It has many religions, has many faiths, many languages, many cuisines, you know, from the Portuguese, the Jewish, the British, the Armenian, the Persians, you know, Arabs. What you’ll find in Kolkata is diversity, lots of different versions of food ’cause people have brought. The influences got into this country. Here, you see it all. And you see it in my food in my restaurant as well. [Kounteya] Yeah, yeah. I serve this kind of food that is a kaleidoscope of cultural things. People think everything is Indian. Even samosa is not Indian. Stories and folklore is- Ahead of everything for you. Go to eat Asma’s food. You’ll realize that you know that this is a story of a land that’s far away. And if you don’t know it, she will make sure that she tells that to you. The stories define her, honesty defines her. That’s what Asma Khan is truly about. I was a second daughter which is not a great position in a family. You know, my mother is one of five daughters. She’s the middle daughter. And I thought the great way to bring honor to her and to women in my family was to cook, to tell their stories. Food is so much about geography which part of the world you are born. Everybody has their version because each family puts in their bits to it. Yet, if you look at it, the similarity is that how the women not only provide the food, but they pass on the tradition down the line. It runs in the family. We are preserving in our own ways, each individual, a food tradition which would die out if we didn’t continue to cook. When I was writing my first cookbook, I didn’t have the courage to put the recipe of the yellow curry purely because it’s a very traditional family recipe and I actually don’t have it. Now, I have actually written this recipe, remembering my aunt, her name was Chokatachi. She was the great cook in my family. And I remember her cooking and instructing someone else. So I just closed my eyes and I remembered her words. I realized that, you know, the women who can actually vocalize and say out these recipes are slowly dwindling. Let me be big-hearted and share this family recipe. Asma has not only learned the recipes and the food. She has taken it to a larger audience. The Bengali cuisine has not got that much highlight internationally. And I think Asma is one of the first people who’ve really taken it out into the world today. Asma is not about food. Asma is about stories on a plate. If you actually know Asma, you’ll realize she has a very curious mind so she picked up those stories. And I think what she did was she merged the stories of her land, of her ancestry. Every name that she has for her dishes, or even Darjeeling Express is again, a memory from her childhood because she’s so proud of her heritage. She’s so proud of where she comes from. She’s so proud of the food that she serves and the reason why she serves it is I sometimes think to tell those stories. We need to give the kitchen, the hands that cook, the women respect. We need to use food as a way of showing how women can be the healers and the feeders in this society. It’s hard to understand this kind of double standards that you have in my society. We worship the goddess. This whole ritual of celebrating and worshiping women is deep in our culture. The problem is that the goddess in the house, the real life person is not worshipped. Little girls and young women struggle because they’re not treated as equal. We still haven’t reached that point. I was actually born two houses away from Suruchi. If you wanted to eat Bengali homestyle food, you went to Suruchi. It was the only Bengali restaurant in Kolkata for decades. This is a women’s organization, a self-help empowerment group of women who have been through very hard times. And it also supports an organization of young girls who’ve been trafficked. And this is what Suruchi does. It picks up these women, supports them, sees them through, gives them a life. They cook together. I cannot emphasize enough to you how important that is. You don’t need that five rupees in your pocket. You need that eye contact with someone who’s not judging you. Hello, hello, hello. Coconut, mustard, white mustard No black mustard. No black mustard. White mustard, coconut, and . I want mutton and I want luchi. Okay. It actually feels very special coming here because you know, this is like my kitchen in London. It’s all women. It’s a kind of female cooperative. There’s no one shouting orders. There’s no hierarchy. Everyone is doing their own job in this kind of silent, unspoken, visual communication. Silence. No shouting, no instructions. No one is trying to be someone else’s boss. So Suruchi is very unusual that it’s one of the only places that I know in the city where it’s an all women kitchen. The other all women kitchen cooking food from Kolkata and Bengal is in Darjeeling Express in London. I tell this to a lot of people when they come to my restaurant that a female founded business by a single female with an all female kitchen cooking at that level, that is Darjeeling Express at the very high-end level, we are the only restaurant in the world. And then I say, there’s one more restaurant and it’s called Suruchi. This is quite amazing that they actually got a certificate of recognition that they are also, you know, part of hospitality. This is very impressive. Congratulations. Okay. How did it feel? Very, very happy. They felt pride and joy. I understand that. I understand that. You know, people always ask me, you don’t have professionals in your kitchen. These are professionals. They have life experience so this is You don’t need a degree from anyone. This is when I get upset when people talk about professionalism. An hour ago, nothing was here. There was some panic there that will the food be ready. Bang, it’ll be ready on time. The poor in my country stay poor. Every day, it’s only about food, the rice. You live to eat. And at the end of the day, too many people go to bed hungry. These women are cooking to, you know, spread the love. It’s very cheap, the food. It’s beautifully made at very high level of cooking. She has just got experience. She’s saying it’s still hard, it’s not ready to go. You know, whenever I see this, I think of this, that the people who are very, very poor and especially those with girls, the rice is given to the boys and they get the water. That’s it. They don’t get the rice. They get that starchy water. And if you see children in our slums with that very swollen belly, especially girls, that’s what they’re having. They don’t get to eat the rice. When I was in college, I worked in Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Those who were not in the orphanage would come outside. And this was the thing I could see them having. This is the starch water. This is given to them. It’s filling, it’s warm. This is not food, but for them, it is. And it’s usually the girls I saw who are always given this. I’m not gonna judge the parents who give this to their children because if they could afford, they would feed them. And so this is not a judgment on them. It just feels bad that, you know, this is, this was for them food, things that, you know, people normally just throw away. These are scarred women. And I know this from my own experience. When you are scarred, you are all the time trying to heal yourself. You see the scars of other women. Other people may not even notice them. I see it. So for the home that many of these women lost, some as young as five or six years old, girls were taken away, never to go back, Suruchi has become their home. And you taste that in their food. Simple, healing, clean taste. Beautiful. If you are in Kolkata, you should definitely go there. You know, it’s worth it. You’ll taste something different, see their faces, their joy. Park Circus Market is the closest, big bazaar to the house where I spent my entire childhood. My mother and I went literally every day. It’s quite small. You can see everything visually. So you walk in the market, you know that all the spinach has come today. Fresh, all open for you to just buy. We used to go and buy all the vegetables and we would buy fruits. Thank you, thank you. Fish is intrinsic to a Bengali meal. If you actually look at the culture of fish, for example, most Indian men actually go buy their own fish in the mornings. They go to the markets, they try out, they see the texture. They’re very romantic about it. An average Bengali meal will always have at least one form of fish. Doesn’t matter, the poorest man or the richest man, tiniest fish or the largest fish, it will always have fish. Fish, everybody eats all the time. There is not a single occasion, death, birth, marriages, anything where fish doesn’t take part. And I want prawns. Thank you. Bengali food is very simple. It is essentially fish or other kind of seafood and rice. Mustard and seafood is very, very traditional Bengali combination. And here it is, Bengal on a plate, boiled rice and prawns with white mustard. When I come to Kolkata, I don’t wanna go and eat new food. First thing I want to do is eat in all the shops and restaurants I ate as a child. But Park Circus Market, my mother and I went literally every day. Sometimes I used to not want to go but she used to bribe me. She would tell me, I’m gonna take you to Jaiswal Testy Corner. And I’m going to buy you the fried puri and the aloo. I loved that. I have memories from childhood of having that. Every time I come back, I go back there. This is my first cookbook. And I came here just to take pictures of Kolkata so I could use them on my cookbook. And I came here exactly here. I took this picture and I told him I’ll put it in my book. He didn’t believe me. It’s been now three years, I’ve come back to show him this is in the book. And the whole world has seen his face. The moment I went there, they said, oh, you took so long to come back. And I said, you know, where’s your brother? And they said, oh, someone’s gonna run to go and get him. Most of all, I love the gulab jamun which is basically it’s milk solids which is deep fried, slowly deep fried so it cooks all the way in. And then that is dunked into seriously sweet syrup. And it sits in that syrup, it swells up, and absorbs all the syrup. Best gulab jamun. So then I took my book and I brought it and I gave it to him because I’ve got his picture there. Tada! How can I not come? How can I forget you? I’ll come back. I promised you. This was quite important for me to go back to a place because I know that his shop is still there. The gulab jamun is still the same. The puri’s the same. I am no longer the same. I’ve become something else. I am this new person. I’m a chef in London and I’m whatever. I’m the writer of this cookbook but I’m also 5-years-old again. I’m still that child again. So this is when all my worlds collide, my world as an immigrant, my world as a child growing up in Kolkata. In this corner, it all becomes one. My childhood on Bright Street was just a lot of fun. I had the best neighbors. [Mohit] You wanna play cricket? I’ll get a bat and ball. I’ll still bowl you out. Even now, I could bowl you out. Yes. Anytime, anytime. I’m still the best bowler in Bright Street. I loved being out in the sun. I was wild and out of control. And I didn’t fit in this kind of princess mode of being beautiful and wearing pretty clothes because I used to play a lot and be out. And my mother was like, you know, let her be, let her be. She told me, be free, be respectful but be free. This is the old place. My God. It’s changed so much. They have taken away everything of this house but the bamboo remains. [Mohit] Yes, that does stay. You know, when the northeasters used to come. Yeah. The whole bamboo used to bend and touch the ground. Ammu used to always tell me that, dig the roots so deep in your life that you bend but do not break. Now that I see this bamboo, I feel quite emotional because I feel it recognizes me. All of us. And I recognize it. [Zynah] Still there. It’s still there because and look at it it’s growing like us. Growing in different directions. Kolkata trees don’t lose their leaves. When I left India, suddenly I came to Cambridge. I still remember I walked out, I was so cold. And I remember running my hand down the back of the tree. It was so rough. And I remember thinking that this is me. I am completely naked of all beauty of flowers and leaves and fruits. This was the change from being a royal family to being an immigrant. Saw the bamboo and then- Samosa man. [Sangeeta] Samosa man. But I mean is the samosa as good? It’s still, according to me, one of the best you can eat in Kolkata. I’ll never ever forget that samosa. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, and have the samosa. Shingara is the Bengali word for samosa. Samosa is like bread. You have many different varieties in India. It’s an emotional thing. The one that was near my house, Gopal Chandra Halder, he used to sit in the heat making samosas. I mean he’s no longer there. And now his son makes the samosas. [Mohit] So ready for some memories of childhood? Yes. Best samosa in the whole world, best. So I remember your father. Every samosa looks the same. Identical, same. How is it? Okay. How you fold it? Because my opens, huh? Ah, that’s the trick. That’s the trick. That’s the trick. Centering and then. That’s so clever because… I watched him making the samosa and I also learned a new technique about the folding. Haha, look at this. Tada! My God. Okay, let’s get some samosas. Memories. We will start with four. It’s so nice that it’s now 50 years old, that shop is still there. It’s too good. Just like the olden days. Even smell, the taste, the texture. This is my childhood. This is childhood. When we were young, we could afford to buy after cricket match quite a lot. It was something to celebrate. Well actually, no, because after all the fighting over cricket and football, we used to fight over the samosas. His sense of humor has remained 2-year-old. And this is when I’m with the ladies. You should see me when I’m with the guys. When we used to all sit together, it was just this feeling that, you know, you could be anything. We were dreaming dreams. And I would dream a lot that I would do something great in my life. Hi. Hi. Hi, how are you? I’m kind of mesmerized by all of this coming to a sweet shop especially all these sweet shop is like things I dream of in London. Take your time, take your time. I absolutely love this. I love what you’re doing. Thank you. And it is so different to come into a mithai dukan where there’s a female. Thank you, I appreciate that. Because I have never in my life, seen a woman in a Bengali sweet shop. Thank you. So this is my first time and everything looks so incredible. Lahana’s doing something radical, very different. They’re not many women involved in the sweet business. She’s taken over her father’s business. She’s running something that’s never run by women before. Because women would never inherit a shop. The family shop is father to son. Girls don’t get involved. I wanna try something so I’ll let you choose. You choose one and I’ll choose the next. Okay, I want you to have the kachagolla. Okay. This is like fresh cottage cheese. So there are three kinds of paks. So basically this is the fresh one. Then you have the soft ones and those are the kora ones. Those are basically that last for like a week. Okay. I’m gonna, I’m gonna try a little bit and then I wanna try the ChanarJilipi. For sure. Mm. So that is basically just the same cottage cheese, deep fried, and soaked in syrup. Do you like it? Oh wow. I’m so happy. It’s just unbelievable and I was so concerned. I’m glad you like it. I’m gonna eat that before I go. We’ll pace it. Yeah, absolutely, let’s go and see your kitchen now. Okay, for sure. Oh my God. Look at the quantity. So this is all the fresh cottage cheese. Yeah. That’s being made. It’s gonna be saved and then cooled down. And that’s the base for pretty much all our mishti and sandesh, the roshogolla, everything. So he’s our head karigar, yeah. So this is where the karigari happens. So like these are the sponge balls which has been kind of weighted down and the liquid is out which is gonna be again cooked in the syrup. [Asma] The syrups. [Lahana] Yeah. [Asma] Wow. Yeah, so by the time they reach the top, you’ll see their full size. That means they’re done. And then they’re soaked back into the syrup again. I know it’s you standing here but you’re standing here representing your father. Yes. [Asma] And your entire family heritage because it’s almost 100 years old. Yes. We turn 100 in 2023, correct. Well, I mean, it is a legacy that you gotta be so proud of because you know, you still cook in a very traditional way. But you are not traditional. I am not. So essentially your father wasn’t given the family house. Yeah. Was not given the big shops. This was all built because he didn’t inherit anything. The reason why he inherited less than his brother. Yeah. His brother had a son and your father had twin daughters. Correct. And your grandfather decided effectively- It was actually my grandmother ironically. No. My grandfather- It is the grandmother. It is the matriarchs who are the problem. I know, right? Absolutely. My grandmother who has five daughters was heartbroken when I was born. Oh God, that’s like the- I know, I know. It was just, it’s tough. This is a psychological thing. People will not give anything that is family and ancestral to the girl because the whole point is they say, oh, the husband will take it away. So I wanna know your story. I know you were born here. Yes. And then what happened? I actually never wanted to leave I mean, Kolkata. And then I chased my partner at that time and kind of moved to Vancouver. Then we went to school together, I did my post grad. So you were there living the dream expat life that over here, everybody thinks those are the best are having life, the best life possible. Yes. Why did you come back? I always had this in the back of my mind that someone needs to come back, either me or my sister, one of us needs to come back and kind of join the business and help my dad retire and kind of, you know, learn the trade. And then COVID happened and it kind of forced us to think about what is actually important. And then your story changed my life. We were like tears in our eyes and that’s when I exactly knew I was like my sister and I, we kind of sat down and we were like, you know, we gotta go back. One of us has to go back. I know Dad wants us to stay here and kind of follow our dreams. But one of us needs to go back. We literally, we literally set out a plan. We set out a plan. No we did. We did. I still have the book. We started our social media like we gotta go. And we did. That was like one of our groundbreaking movers that kind of motivated us and like, COVID kind of helped too, forced us to think. And like, so- I know a lot of people write to me but whenever someone tells me this, that their life changed because of this, you know, you know, you need to do this too, for someone else, someone else will come and say the same thing to you. I hope so. Yeah because it’s very important. It’s important to draw strength. And I wasn’t finding that strength ’cause I knew knew the plan was always to come back but I didn’t know how and when. But that changed my life. And two months later, I was here. Lahana’s trying to do something very different for Bengal. But these are the ones who are clearing the pathway for the generation coming after us. I feel it all the time. I feel the breath of the girls coming after me, the women coming after me. And I am clearing the world for them. I’m clearing the way. I will stand on one side and I will then applaud as they go ahead of me. I want them to do better than me. Lahana has that same attitude. The collective of women which you will have to eventually be the leader of over here, you get your chance on that. Lahana’s breaking the barriers. She’s pushing the path. She’s removing the hurdles. I carry on me the scars. What all of you see is my victory. You see my success. You never saw my failure. There was no camera there. There was no one interviewing me. I carry the scars on my soul of all the failures of all the doors that were closed on my face. This is why, you know, it’s important to highlight the story of people like Lahana. It has been an absolutely fabulous morning coming here, seeing the shop, and the taste of everything, the aromas that were in this kitchen. And I feel, you know, extremely excited because I think that, you know, change is happening. Thanks. And then, you know, we build an empire. Yes. So thank you, thank you once again. Thank you. Thank you so much. You’re very welcome. Thank you, thank you very much. My dream is to come back and do something for the women over here. Home cooks and women are seen as just ordinary although they are the custodian of recipes. We teach people, we feed them, we heal them. I want all men to be successful. I wish them well. I hope they have great careers as chefs but give some space on that stage for us, create some space for women to come through. What I want to say to home cooks around the world, first of all is thank you. It is so important if you can have the time to cook, to teach your children, boys and girls, how to cook. And think it’s very, very important to celebrate the cook who’s in the house.

About the Instructor

Asma Khan, owner of famed London eatery Darjeeling Express and bestselling cookbook author of “Asma’s Indian Kitchen” teaches her favorite family recipes, inspired by her childhood in Kolkata, India. The chef, restaurateur, and activist is the first UK-based chef to be featured on Netflix’s Emmy-nominated Chef’s Table and, in 2019, was listed number 1 on Business Insider’s ranking of “100 Coolest People in Food and Drink”. Join Asma on a nostalgic culinary journey to explore the smells, flavors, and ingredients of her ancestral Bengali roots.

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