One can count on fingers the number of chefs from Kolkata who’ve made it big internationally. Asma Khan is right up there.
The chef, who owns Darjeeling Express in London, arrived in her hometown to spend time with her family in the month of Ramzan. On the evening of April 13, her family, as well as food and book lovers of the city, joined Asma for iftar and adda at an evening organised by The British Council library and Sienna Cafe & Store.
Asma took the chair with other notable female chefs from the city, including Doma Wang of The Blue Poppy and Manzilat Fatima of Manzilat’s, to talk about the ‘female force in our culinary heritage’. Before the event kicked off, My Kolkata caught up with Asma for an exclusive chat.
My Kolkata: Welcome home. When you visit Kolkata today, are you treated differently because you are a star?
Asma: I would like to say I'm treated the same, but yesterday I met a lot of my younger nieces and nephews who didn’t know me when I lived in Kolkata. They know me because of Anil Kapoor, Paul Rudd, Riz Ahmed and Chef’s Table. So, I was kind of mobbed and then one of them asked me for my autograph. All my aunts were laughing! This has not happened to me before and it was quite sweet and emotional. The younger generation knows the media side of me, they don't know me. So, those who’ve just discovered me through my stories treat me differently, but whoever knows me from before does not.
What are some of the lessons from your Ammu (mother) that you hold close to your heart?
Ammu would love to chat when she was cooking. One of the things she always said was, ‘Beta, be generous. Be kind. Be patient. Take time, don’t rush it.’ And I think that has been the ethos of my cooking. I don’t rush it, I don’t mass-cook things, even my menu has just six items today. We don’t make a huge amount of things, we make things fresh, we don’t put it into the freezer, we don’t microwave it. Ammu used to say, ‘ibadat se khilayo’. Ibadat is with that respect and honour as if the food is worshipped.
(From left) Asma Khan, Auroni Mookerji of Sienna Cafe, Asma’s mother ‘Ammu’ and Debanjan Chakrabarti, director, British Council, East and Northeast India. “It was an absolute honour to host Asma Said Khan for the launch of her deeply personal cookbook, Ammu. The iftar and chai, coming from the kitchens of Sienna Cafe, Blue Poppy and Manzilat's, was the perfect proverbial cherry on the top!” said ChakrabartiArijit Sen
Your recently-released cookbook Ammu is dedicated to her. What are some of the recipes you would recommend from the book for Kolkata readers?
The Chita Ruti for Kolkata readers who have not been exposed to Bangladesh. Then there are a couple of Anglo-Indian dishes like Pot Roast Beef, which is wonderful.
Recipes Asma Khan recommends to Kolkatans from her recently-released cookbook 'Ammu'Arijit Sen
And there’s one dish I know anyone in Kolkata can make and everyone thinks their mother makes it really well, which is Golda Chingri. But good luck to anyone whose mother has shared the right recipe (laughs)! Do make your mother’s recipe but use the recipe in the book as the base. I would recommend readers to please make the Bengali dishes in the book because all the instructions are correct.
You have had innumerable celebrity diners at Darjeeling Express. But who have you really enjoyed cooking for?
Keira Knightley – she has two children now, so does not come to the bigger restaurant in Covent Garden, but she loves food and is so sweet. The other, of course, is Riz Ahmed. I was also touched by Dan Levy and Paul Rudd and their enthusiasm about eating the food. Paul Rudd visited us thrice in one month.
Asma talks about the celebrity diners at London’s Darjeeling ExpressArijit Sen
Anil Kapoor’s humility is a story worth sharing. He entered my restaurant and I was there to greet him. I told him that one of the girls in my restaurant used to sell potatoes to raise money for his first-day-first-show. He said, ‘I can’t enter your restaurant till I go and do salaam to her’. And without any warning, I took him into the kitchen and the kitchen was filled with screams and tears! He walked up to Asha and said, ‘I am a star because of you; because you earned the money in such a hard way for me. I'm very grateful’.
That was the moment I realised that people who have made it big and haven’t forgotten where they’ve come from are the nicest people.
Being a passionate foodie, what do you try to eat every time you’re in Kolkata?
Chana Bhatura at Kwality’s, a lot of Kati Rolls and there’s almost always a trip to Flurys and Aminia.
This time I had Chopsuey from Jimmy’s Kitchen, which was so good, so good! I think Kolkata is the food capital of the country. The thing is because we live here we don’t realise how amazing it is. Every kind of cuisine that is available here is at an elevated level.
Can we look forward to another book by Asma?
I don’t think I want to write a book about food for a while, but I am definitely thinking of writing a book about Kolkata. The city is my lifeline, my heartbeat, it’s what keeps me alive.