If a visitor from another planet asked me to tell the story of food on Earth, I’d send them to meet Asma Khan.
The story of mankind’s relationship with food is deep, complex and contradictory:
How does food bring us together as a species? When does it drive us apart?
How does food show mankind at our best? And at our worst?
Asma tells the story of food on Earth better than anyone.
On a summer’s evening this year, she held an audience spellbound as she did just that.
If I could have got a spare ticket, I’d have invited the space traveller to join me on July 4th for Asma’s Biryani Supper Club – marking the very last evening in her Garrick Street restaurant.
Standing in a packed room – speaking between courses, without notes – Asma shared her insights into what food is, what it means – and its unique power to drive change.
Over the busy sounds of service, and dozens of people whispering their appreciation of the different courses, these are Asma’s words – recorded with her permission on a mobile phone.
It was a unforgettable privilege to hear her speak, and eat her food.
The space traveller would have gone home happy.
[Momos are served]
“Hello everyone, and welcome to Darjeeling Express.”
“I’m not going to get emotional about it, but this is the final day for us in Garrick Street. It’s a Monday evening, and it’s amazing that so many of you found time to come into Covent Garden for our final supper club. It’s actually deeply moving. It was a crazy idea to do one last meal, because tonight we have to lock up and move all the chairs and everything once you leave.”
“But the food is here, the team is here, and our hearts are full. We’re very grateful for that.”
“Tonight, you’re my captive audience! You want your meal, you’ve paid for it, so you’re going to stay. But I’m not letting you go until you hear me out, because it’s very important.”
“I’m not worried if you like what I’m about to say or if you don’t. Even if you say to yourself… ‘I’m never coming back to this restaurant’… you’ll remember my words and my accented voice.”
“And the next time you sit next to someone who looks or sounds like me on the underground or on a plane, maybe you’ll think differently about them.”
“For me, food and politics are two sides of the same coin.”
“For those of you who are looking a bit surprised right now, you obviously haven’t read much about me!”
“Let’s take the starter in front of you… the momo. It’s all about politics.”
“As lots of you know, Calcutta is home to many communities, including lots of different refugee communities. When the Tibetan and Nepali refugees first came to India, we treated them appallingly. But we loved their momos!”
“It’s the same the world over. In America, they build walls to keep people out of their country… but they eat their tacos!”
“The easiest thing to take off an immigrant is their food.”
“And please don’t think it’s any different in this country.
“Speaking as a Muslim in the UK, I tell you this…”
“You cannot eat my food… unless you’re willing to sit down and break bread with me.
“You cannot listen to my music, you cannot wear my clothes, you cannot have any part of my culture… unless you honour and respect me.
“You dishonour me by separating me from my culture.”
“It takes a big heart to respect and understand an immigrant, to overcome your own prejudice. And unfortunately, we’re all fed this racist garbage by the right-wing media, and even by our politicians. We’re told ‘these people look different, let’s not like them’. The reality is that they’re very brave. They’ve come to this country to escape war and famine, they’ve crossed deserts and oceans to get here. And that’s why we should hate them?”
“So the momo is an example of a dish that’s been stolen by everybody. Calcutta has the only Chinatown in India, where they still segregate the Chinese community behind a big wall. They put the people behind the wall… it’s still there… but the momos are allowed out.”
“And if you go to Calcutta today you’ll find momos everywhere, being made and sold by Indians. We’ve appropriated their food. The people who gave us the momos are still behind the walls.”
“The momos on your table are from Calcutta. When the Tibetans arrived in the mountains of Darjeeling, they made their momos with pork, buffalo meat, or chicken. Prawn momos are what you get in Calcutta because the city is close to the sea and we love seafood. So this is the local twist, and I’m serving you what I grew up eating.”
“In my country, it’s a fact that we mistreat other people’s food, just like other people mistreat ours.”
“I need to tell the story of how this works. That’s why I’m serving you a momo.”
“The girls in my kitchen, half of them are Nepali. They’re from both sides of the border, they’re from Nepal and they’re from India. In Calcutta, these girls made momos under very different circumstances. They were young, and they were forced by their families to sell steaming-hot momos to men on buses and trains. Many of them got abused. Momos are a dish of their oppression.”
“I promised these girls that one day I would be something. I promised them I’d open a restaurant, and that I would tell their stories. I told them: ‘Your food will be honoured by those who eat it. It’s not the food that is unclean and it’s not you who are unclean… it’s the people who touched you who are unclean’.”
“I told them that we’d rise together from the ashes. And it’s ironic because this is our last day here in Garrick Street.”
“So, these momos are very classic. The sauce is a smoked sesame and red chilli sauce. It goes off very quickly and becomes super spicy. So the sellers make it on the roadsides literally just before they serve it. There’s a fragrance to the way it’s made. It’s not from a bottle. We’re doing it here the way they do it.”
[Puchkas are served]
“We’re now serving you puchkas, with a filling of black chickpeas and potatoes. The tamarind water, if you smell it, has a kind of pungency… that’s the Himalayan rock salt, it’s sulphuric.
“We’re back in Calcutta… eating Bengali street food. Calcutta is next to the Delta, and when we perspire in that humidity we don’t just lose water, but body salts. If you do physical work in that heat, you suffer.”
“The Rickshaw Wallah, is the person whose bare footprint you can see in the melted tar on the road, because the time they’re the busiest is when the sun is at its height.”
“When the Puchka Wallah sells to the Rickshaw Wallah, they’ll always add a cup of water for free. This is the poor looking after the poor. It’s what street food is all about for Indians. It’s very important to understand the magic around it, the drama.”
“If you go downstairs, you’ll see photos of Puchka Wallahs. They leave the slums in the morning with their puchkas, and they need to sell everything otherwise their family doesn’t eat that night. I learned to make puchkas from them. The Puchka Wallahs wouldn’t normally teach someone from my background, but they understand whose side I’m on.”
“I think a lot of us want to be on the right side of history – where you speak up for people and protect them. So when I was in school and college I was a big troublemaker.”
“The police would harass the Puchka Wallahs and take money from them. So we locked the police up! And I was the one who did it. On the streets of Calcutta, I’m a hero. The Puchka Wallahs have never forgotten that I stood up for them, and locked the police up in a house. We didn’t beat them, we didn’t take their money, we just pushed and pushed them into the building. And because there were so many schoolgirls in uniform, they were scared to push us back.”
“So this puchka is really a taste of the Calcutta streets.”
[Biryani is served]
“Every biryani has a story, and every biryani is very personal. It’s something you make to celebrate the gathering of people. And of course it’s the perfect dish to serve here, to end our time in this building, with all of you gathered.
“We’re celebrating with food.”
“And I’m so proud because this evening I’m with the people who inspired me.”
“This is Rashmi and that’s Asha. You probably recognise them from Chef’s Table. Asha and Rashmi were both in the film. What I loved about Chef’s Table is that I told Netflix: ‘I want to tell the story of my girls’.
“Not only did Netflix tell the stories of my girls, they put their names and the villages up there. This is what makes it so special. It’s been a journey where I’ve never been alone.”
“I always say that the first home you have is your mother’s womb. After that, we’re all migrants. And just because some people have a different colour skin, we’re called refugees.”
“So, for me, food is all about politics. It’s a battle cry for justice, about my right to be treated equally and for my food to be respected.”
“We were only open for ten days in this restaurant before the country went into lockdown. In those ten days we designed a £95 tasting menu – and everyone told me: ‘No one’s going to pay £95 on an Indian tasting menu!’”
“But we were packed! We sold out.”
“And if you think that food made by western, white people is more elevated, more sophisticated than food cooked by people who look like me… then what does that say about you?”
“When I cook with my team, we’re celebrating something…”
“We’re celebrating the female cook.”
“Because, in every home you go to in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka you’ll find a woman cooking. But in every restaurant you go to, you’ll find a man cooking. There is no space on the commercial stage for women like us.”
“I know people thought that Chef’s Table was a media thing. It wasn’t. It was an incredible opportunity to tell the story of uncelebrated women. After the episode came out, I used to get 100, 120 messages a day – from Brazilian women, Irish women, women from Colombia, all of them saying: ‘In you, I saw myself’.”
“And I realised this is a universal story of the marginalised, those whose food is taken for granted, whose skills and passion are taken for granted… that they will cook, always… for free.”
“How can it be that we’re the only female-founded, all female Indian restaurant in the world? That there’s no one else like us?”
“Many of you are much younger than me, you will outlive me. Even in my death, there’s a message for women… whatever your colour, whoever you are. Be brave! Be very, very brave! Even when I’m dead, you’ll have my story and the story of these women… that you can be something, that you don’t need to conform.”
“And if any of you are in positions of power and strength, then open the doors for people who look different from you. We are just as skilled; just as passionate.”
“All of you have seen my success, but you never saw how many times I was defeated. You don’t see the scars I still carry, the hurdles I fell on and bled. I got up because I knew these girls were running after me. I could feel their breath on me. There’s a poem that when you walk alone, and when it’s so dark, you set fire to your ribs so you light the way and others can see where to go. That’s the story of Darjeeling Express.”
“And I’m sorry if this is more politics than you’d expected. But you should always be on the right side of history. This is how segregation ended in the USA: a woman refused to get off a seat on a bus. Every kind of injustice that happens in the world will end if people speak up. You don’t want to end your life knowing you were silent, and that you helped the oppressor.”
“Please speak up, be brave. I do a lot of work with the LGBTQ community, we’ve just had Pride. This is a huge in my community as well. I think that all kinds of bias are wrong and we can do something about it. We can talk about it and be brave.”
[Chai is served]
“You’ve enjoyed your dessert, and now an even sweeter thing is about to come… the chai.”
“I tell this to every supper club guest, if you think caffeine is what will keep you up, no… the biryani keeps you up! So have the caffeine!”
“Live your life, stay up all night! Believe me, this is what life should be all about. Just eat, be merry and enjoy all the flavours that life brings.”
“So this chai is quite unique because Asha starts to make it from the morning. It’s cooked for a long time. You will taste the pepper and the ginger. This is not the garbage that you get from Starbucks called ‘chai tea’. And also please, never ever call it ‘chai tea’, it’s like saying ‘tea tea’!”
“Every sip should taste different as it cools… and as the other spices take over. And if you have the last bit when it’s cold, you’ll taste a spice that you won’t recognise. It’s a wonderful experience.”
“Please take home all the food you can carry. We have a saying in our culture that every grain of rice has your name written on it and this is your blessing because you were served it. So, please do take any uneaten food and give it to anyone, give it to the homeless.”
“It’s Asha and Monika who are the powerhouse. I’m just the storyteller.”
Huge thanks to my beautiful daughter Mia for transcribing Asma’s words.
Wow, Amazing, having opened and run a restaurant in Taunton, I can reflect so much of Asma’s story like the hundreds of Brazillian women and other women who wrote to her. Best wishes in whatever she and others are going to do. Prem