Some stuff is just meant to happen.
It’s a sunny July morning in Regent’s Park – and as I pull on my bright green, volunteer’s T-shirt, I get that slightly nervy ‘first-day-at-school’ feeling. I’m at the Taste of London festival as a volunteer for epic charity The Felix Project. So why the nerves? Food is my thing, and The Felix Project promises to connect me with any number of gourmet concessions on the site. Spending a day at the festival should be a blast. But somehow the new uniform gives me that ‘new-boy’ feeling.
After we’ve been briefed, I find myself allocated to running the ‘coat and bag’ stall. But before I can even settle in, a bubbly Felix Project person asks for a volunteer to help run the Celebrity Cookery School. My hand shoots up. I have no idea what I’m letting myself in for, but fame and food sound like rocket-fuelled promotion over the coat stall. I’m led to the Bake-Off style tent that houses the Cookery School, and introduced to the celebrity chef.
“It’s you”, says the voice.
To millions, it’s a voice they know from Netflix Chef’s Kitchen, from BBC R4’s Saturday Live, and from countless other broadcasts.
I’m talking to Asma Khan – celebrity chef, broadcaster, author, entrepreneur and diversity champion!
“How’ve you been?” she asks me.
The fact is, I have dozens of questions for Asma. From almost the start of her career, I’ve had the privilege of eating her sensational food – and learning from her pioneering lead on diversity. Since 2014, I’ve blogged on the early pop-ups in her London home and on her supper clubs at the Cinnamon Club, and eaten with her and her parents in Kolkata. Asma and I even shared lunch on the day of Trump’s presidential win in 2016, to try to make sense of it all.
I ask Asma how she and her family are. The questions that will have to wait are: how does it feel to be one of the world’s most famous chefs? And what’s it like to be the world’s most famous female chef… leading an all-female team?
But the show is about to start. The sold-out crowd wants to hear Asma speak – and I discover she’ll actually be answering my questions as she goes.
“People who look like me and sound like me don’t usually get to the top of my industry,” says Asma.
As opening lines go, it’s up there! And the crowd are already eating out of her hand.
In the promotional blurb, the session promises a close-up with Asma to cook a paneer korma. But from her first words, it’s clear it will be much more. Over the next forty minutes, the cook-alongers not only get a masterclass in a curry classic – they get a guided tour of Indian culture, family life, diversity, fame, Netflix and more!
And for me, the blogger trading as Good Korma… Asma Khan herself will teach me how to make a good korma. Some stuff is just meant to happen!
First course – foodie insights
But it’s lunchtime, and people have come to eat. Asma kicks off with her korma masterclass. Her audience are gathered around their cooking-stations, with bowls of pre-prepared ingredients. Onions are the first to go in.
“All the slices need to be the same width,” says Asma, “so that they cook at the same speed. For the first few minutes, make sure you don’t lower the temperature of the oil by shaking the pan. You can look, but don’t touch! Resist temptation!”
This is great. We’re thirty seconds in, and Asma is already unpacking the science of curry – as well as explaining why my onions always take so long to fry in the pan! I will not stir them again.
“English onions are full of moisture,” she continues, “but if you’re using Spanish onions… God help you! Add a pinch of salt, to draw the moisture out. And if you ever over-salt a dish, just add a slice of potato. It will absorb the salt – but please don’t eat it!
“If a chef tells you your onions are done in x minutes, then they don’t know what they’re talking about. Watch for the oil appearing at the edge of your pan… that’s when your onions are done.”
This is the real deal. This is the insight of generations of female Indian cooks, shared with a multi-cultural audience in London. It’s what Asma and her Darjeeling Express brand are all about.
Pretty soon, the tent is perfumed with the aroma of dozens of kormas on the go, and the unmissable scent of paneer. “Make your own paneer at home,” says Asma, “it’s a life-changing experience. In India, paneer only exists in the Punjab because they have a winter and cows. In Kolkata, if we have a cow, we eat it. It wasn’t until the Portuguese arrived in India that Bengalis learnt to make cheese. It was their only legacy.”
In a few sentences, Asma sprinkles centuries of Indian foodie insights. It’s delicious stuff.
Main course – fame, diversity and more
But then her narrative goes up a gear. From micro insights into managing the cooking temperature of a pan, Asma switches to macro insights into Indian culture.
“I love my culture and my cuisine,” Asma tells the crowd, “but I can criticise it. I lead one of the very few all-female chef teams in the West – but also in the East – which I find very sad. In India, the approach to food is based on our patriarchal society… where men eat first, women eat last, and girls eat least. Very often, the men eat alone. It’s a sad fact that I never saw my uncles or grandfathers eat.
“But if you go to any home in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, you’ll find a woman in the kitchen. Women do all the cooking for their families and for festivals, but as soon as it comes to money – the men arrive. Go into an Indian restaurant in the UK, and you’ll find a male chef. There’s nothing wrong with what they do, and they’ve achieved great things, but they went to culinary school and they didn’t learn at home.”
The mood in the tent has changed. People are listening hard.
“The fact is that Indian cooking is done by Indian women… but generations of them have gone to their grave thinking they have no skills. Together with my lady chefs, we want to change the perception of women in Indian food.”
There’s a burst of applause.
When it comes to her own culinary skills and stellar career, Asma is wonderfully self-deprecating. “When I got the email from Netflix Chefs Table,” she says, “I didn’t answer for days. I thought it was a scam… one of those ‘your uncle has died and you’ve inherited a fortune’ numbers. Luckily, I did get back to them in the end.”
She goes on to explain how – trying to move to bigger premises from her Kingly Court restaurant – she found herself in front of countless panels of white males, who all said ‘no’. Despite the huge success of her first venture, with cash in the bank and 18 months of forward bookings, Asma tells the audience how an Asian woman simply couldn’t persuade London landlords to back her.
Until she met the panel of her current Garrick Street restaurant.
“When I realised that I might get the Covent Garden side,” she says, “I told the landlord, ‘You have to give this place to me, not just for me, but for everyone who’s ever felt marginalised in life.”
“If you’ve ever been ‘othered’,” she tells the audience, “talk to me.”
The crowd give Asma an ovation.
Haat ka maza
As the tent empties – and after Asma has generously joined fans for the selfies – she serves me a portion of her paneer korma. An Urdu phrase springs to mind ‘haat ka maza’, meaning literally ‘hand fun’ or ‘hand magic’. I’ve read that the saying expresses the unique character that an individual brings to a dish.
Asma’s paneer korma is delicious.
As we eat it, she shares a final insight: “There are thousands of korma recipes, but a korma should never have cumin or turmeric.”
“So,” I ask, “what’s the most important ingredient of a korma?”
Good korma… indeed!
Some stuff is just meant to happen.
If this has whetted your appetite for Asma’s cooking, her philosophy – and her paneer korma – enjoy all three in her book and at her restaurant.