Asma Khan, the well-known chef-restaurateur behind London’s , is ready with her latest creation – a cookbook that is a celebration of her mum Ammu’s cooking.
With ‘Ammu: Indian Home-Cooking to Nourish the Soul’, which releases this week, Asma celebrates her Rajput and Bengali heritage, the healing power that lies behind Indian cuisine and the under-valued cook that she believes lies within us all.
iGlobal caught up with the mum of two to discover the inspiration behind the book written over the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and packed with enticing recipes, released serendipitously just in time for , Women’s History Month and Mother’s Day.
MORE LIKE THIS…
What did your Ammu make of this book which is inspired by her?
I was very lucky because I was able to take a copy to her. It was very emotional; I was shaking with fear because I really wanted her to love. It’s a huge challenge, I tried not to get overwhelmed.
But because I was not able to see my mother, as it was written over the pandemic, it was easier. I didn't send her anything for approval. I didn't share the pictures of the recipes. I wrote this because I wanted this to be that conversation that maybe I never had, which I should have had of what she meant to me.
It was while I was writing the book in the pandemic, with the restaurant closed, I realised how much I was like her and how I had learnt so much. And, all these forgotten stories of how she treated the house help and took them out for meals and that she was so brave while staying rooted in her culture.
This is why when I gave this book to Ammu, I hoped she would love it. And she did. She read it all night, kept holding my hand, very emotional, telling me about how she had forgotten about this or that. She was also stunned because my uncle managed to get all those old, vintage photographs of her.
Unfortunately, it's a nightmare to get a visa right now because of the long queue. I would have loved for her to come for the launch but she's in Calcutta and will watch things online.
Do you feel the timing of this book is also important, just as we emerge from lockdown?
At the end of the month is Mother's Day in the UK. In our culture I think it's Mother's Day every day. It's important for us to be vocal and to be unafraid. I want to make sure that women who are in positions of power and privilege, writers and authors, speakers, singers, musicians, actors, whoever you are, you need to speak up, you need to give hope and inspiration for the future generation of leaders.
You don't occupy the space and talk about yourself or try to promote your own things. I think it is very, very important to keep the narrative about the culture, about people, about rights and authorities of those in positions of power.
That is also why I am happy to write a book about Ammu because I can appreciate, I can hold on and I can let go. I'm holding on to so much of my culture but let go of so much that is problematic – like the patriarchy, feudalism, the hatred of each other based on the food you eat. In 'Ammu' you find all the appreciation of what families can be but that doesn't mean that it always works for everybody. But I want us to talk about how important is.
MORE LIKE THIS…
Is there a particularly special dish that stands out?
The Chicken Biryani, a lot of people will know, I was sending by post as far as Scotland from London during the . I had this great appreciation of it because it helped me keep my head above water. I'm so grateful to everyone who ordered Ammu's Chicken Biryani over the lockdown because I had to pay rent for a restaurant that was closed in central London. So that biryani became even more sacred and emotional because it kept my business alive.
I wanted to share this with everybody so that people can understand that you can make complex dishes at home and it's not that difficult. The most important ingredient that you put into any dish is your time. No one will pay you back for that time. Really, 'Ammu' is about you appreciating yourself, understanding how powerful you are as you are healing and feeding. I think people under-value themselves as cooks.
How does it feel looking beyond the lockdown for the hospitality industry?
The lockdown has been debilitating. I'm grateful that we've all managed to make it through and no one in my team lost any close family member. I think that I want to maybe reassess where I am right now. The restaurant we have right now is beautiful, but you cannot see the women and everybody wants to see the women cooking.
Also, we are the only at this level in the world. I want everyone to see nine women cook. We have all seen it in our homes and at family weddings. But for a lot of people, they haven't seen this.
So, the next plan is to move, possibly to some place where I can have an open kitchen and have the diners see the women.
MORE LIKE THIS…
And, what are some other plans for the future?
The London School of Food is something I will keep campaigning for. Also, I intend to, if I have a bigger space, have my School for Female Leadership in Hospitality. I want to encourage women who are older, women from ethnic minorities and under-represented in hospitality to come and join.
The ability to multi-task, to cook in a small limited space and to be able to time-keep is a skill we all have. We are not celebrated by others, so we don't see it in ourselves. That's what my aim is next. I want to give women the ability to come into hospitality and this is the change we need, when people will not look at me and think I'm an unusual case.