“I wrote a storybook… not a cookbook,” says Asma Khan, the chef-owner at the acclaimed London restaurant, Darjeeling Express, about her new cookbook, Ammu (published by Ebury Press).

The charismatic chef who spent her early years in the UK studying for a PhD in British Constitutional law found her solace in cooking and feeding people. For years, she ran a supper club, before launching Darjeeling Express, with dishes reminiscent of her childhood in Kolkata and her Nawabi ancestry: lamb dum biryani, Tangra chilli prawns and Hyderabadi Khoobani ka meetha.

Asma Khan’s new cookbook, Ammu

Drawing from her reflections and experiences during the pandemic, Khan taps into her personal history to pen a part-memoir-part-cookbook that offers more than 100 recipes to heal. “After all we’ve been through… we should not be about impressing people with our food… but we should be about healing people with food,” says Khan.

Read on for edited excerpts of our interview with her, where she talks about the power of home cooking, the inextricable link between food and love and the deeply complex relationship women have with food.

The book that you’ve put together is not simply a book of recipes, but almost a memoir that spans your relationship with food, your mother and everything in between. Talk to me about how the book came to be?

Yes, I think that this is a very personal book. But I think that I could only write this book because it was written in the pandemic. I hadn’t seen my mother or anyone in my family for two years. I was lost in the silence around me. I was not interested in the restaurant. My entire business had collapsed. I was in this very dark space. During this time, I watched more sunrises in my life than I did before. I took inspiration from watching light break through the dark. And I knew that you know, it is inevitable that day will follow night, night will follow day. I built up, dealing with the grief of all my women in the kitchen, who could no longer see the kids. It was devastating what was happening in India at the same time, with, you know, the villages piling up with migrant labourers who came back.

So, I organized rations, we cooked for the NHS — this made me realize how healing food can be. It got me thinking about my personal relationship with food and how my mother [who she calls Ammu] impacted that. I think that everybody can relate to this because everybody has a relationship like this, with someone in their lives, if not necessarily with their mothers. A relationship that nourishes you. That was the starting point for Ammu.

Ma’s Prawns, from Asma Khan’s cookbook Ammu.

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