Asma Khan breaks every stigma that life puts on her. She makes a supper club into a Michelin stared restaurant and turns housewives into chefs. She reinvents herself in ways unimaginable and always finds a way to make her dreams come true. Her food is more than just dinner, it is proof that one person can make a difference.
Early Years & Childhood
Asma was born in July 1968 as the second daughter of a royal Indian family. In India daughters are often seen as a burden, particularly for families that cannot afford to pay for them to marry, and second daughters even more so.
”I don’t think there was a lot of joy at my birth, because I was a second daughter.”
Nevertheless Asma says she and her siblings, she also has a younger brother, were treated equally by her parents and she made peace with her mother while she was still young. They grew up in Calcutta and her father is a Rajput from Western Uttar Pradesh. Her mother is from West Bengal and had a catering business in the 1970s and 1980s. Asma’s father and grandfather worked to unionise labourers in India.
Marriage & Moving to the UK
Asma had an arranged marriage, which is common in India, and moved to Cambridge with her husband at the age of 22. She felt very lonely in the cold, English winter; especially missing the dishes she had grown up eating.
“The place I’d left behind was so abundant, so loving and warm, and suddenly I’d moved to this cold country in winter with a person I didn’t really know. I had never eaten alone before in my life. It was very lonely.”
Even though she had helped her mum in the kitchen growing up, she had never learned how to cook while living in India and only started learning it from her aunt who lived in Cambridge. She returned to India for a few months and continued the cooking lessons from her mother, which helped to develop a closer relationship between them. She learned all about authentic royal Mughlai cuisine that reflected her parents heritage.
“My father is a Muslim Rajput, descended from a warrior tribe, and my mother is a Muslim Bengali. It’s rare in India for people to marry outside of their own region, but it has been a huge, huge benefit to me, because I inherited the culture and tradition of two powerful styles of cuisine.”
Supper Clubs & Becoming a Chef
Despite studying so intensively for her PhD, Asma always knew her future belonged in food. It started out in her own home, inviting friends who were also immigrants to come and eat with her. Soon these dinner parties became supper clubs and Asma became legendary for her home-cooked Mughlai dinners.
”I wanted to feed other people who I knew were going through the same thing I had been through.”
But her family didn’t approve of the supper clubs and Asma had to take her cooking elsewhere. She was offered a residency at The Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. She didn’t think her food would fit in there, but was soon proven wrong. Darjeeling Express – as it was now called – had barely been open a month when Fay Maschler arrived for lunch and wrote a glistening review that launched Asma’s name into the stratosphere.
The restaurant was packed for the next nine months. Many of Asma’s friends – the Indian nannies and housewives that she had invited to her very first supper club – now worked with her in the kitchen.
Darjeeling Express is bigger and grander then the supper club, but the food and philosophy haven’t changed. Asma’s brigade is still made up entirely of women – many of whom are second daughters and immigrants – who cook and serve Asma’s dishes with warmth and love.
“We all cook with the desire to embrace someone. We’re not cooking to make money. We’re cooking because we all know what it is to be without family, without the comfort of having your own food.”
But the Darjeeling Express isn’t just an incredible place to eat Indian food. Over the years Asma has made it into much more than just a restaurant. It is a place for social change, for women from all backgrounds to come together and celebrate their skills and uniqueness.
On Sundays, when Darjeeling Express is closed, Khan offers free use of the premises to women who are aspiring chefs and restaurateurs who would like to host supper clubs. The restaurant also supports a non-profit organisation, Second Daughters Fund, which encourages families in India to celebrate the births of second daughters by sending packages of sweet treats to be shared with neighbours.
Asma is also a very dedicated leader. During the first lockdown she used her own savings to make sure that her staff could still afford food. She closed the restaurant a week before the national lockdown in order for everyone to be safe. She was very happen to open back up in May of 2021 but she is still careful and puts the health of her staff first. She also called out the leaders of the food industry for only reflecting the interest of the money man.
“It’s like the Gordon Ramsays of the world are worth protecting, but your small mum-and-pops restaurant in Wembley, in Ealing, even in Chinatown, are not. We are both the same industry, but our lives and our businesses matter less. Independent restaurateurs were crushed.”
When Asma moved her restaurant to Covent Garden she was met by another obstacle. As an immigrant woman with no big investors behind her, no landlord wanted to take the risk, even though she already had a successful business. Asma felt like she was back in India, needing a man by her side to achieve anything. But she didn’t give up and finally found the perfect space to reopen the Darjeeling Express.
Now Asma is the first British chef to ever be featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and she uses her exposure to the fullest.
”I want to talk about race and about the absolute imbalance of female representation in kitchens. I want to leave a powerful ripple so people will see that it’s possible for them to succeed too, no matter how inferior they are made to feel.”