Life

Recipes: For chef Asma Khan, food is the best way to transport herself home

Darjeeling Express chef Asma Khan talks to Prudence Wade about her new cookbook, dedicated to her mother...

Asma Khan, author of Ammu (Ebury Press, £26)

MOST chefs have at least a few stories about cooking as a child – food is a passion, and for many, this starts young.

While Asma Khan has plenty of food-related stories from her youth though, she didn't actually learn how to cook until she got married.

In fact, Khan had no desire to cook at all growing up – “I just wanted to eat,” she says with a laugh – and didn't see a need to learn. “I didn't imagine I would leave home and leave India. The presumption was, I would have an arranged marriage into another family similar to mine, where people would have cooks and other people – grown-ups – who would cook,” she recalls. “I thought I was a child, people are going to feed me – I'm never going to grow up in my life.”

Khan did have an arranged marriage, but found herself somewhere quite different: the UK. “I was suddenly in a foreign land with a stranger,” she says – and she swiftly realised the best way to connect herself back to her family and the country she left was through cooking.

“Food became my way of going home, but it also became my language of love,” she explains. “I was cooking not because I enjoyed cooking – I was cooking to heal, and feed and nourish others. I realised Ammu [her mother] did that her whole life too.”

Luckily, Khan's first adventures in the kitchen were relatively successful. She started with easy dishes, like parathas and koftas (“I didn't want to pick things I thought I may not be able to do”), and the recipes came easily because she was already so familiar with them.

“I knew how to cook, but I didn't know how to cook,” she says. Reflecting on her childhood in the kitchen, she explains: “The food that was being cooked, even though I didn't know how it was being made, I knew the aromas, I knew the sounds – the sizzle of the cumin, the popping of the mustard seeds, the smokiness of the dried chillies… I knew how to recreate these dishes very quickly, because you just have to watch it done once from beginning to end.”

That's why Khan spends so much time in her new cookbook, Ammu, describing the sensory experiences of cooking – how dishes should taste and smell, rather than focusing purely on things like cooking times. ‘Ammu' is the affectionate term for ‘mother' for Bengali Muslims – and it was important for Khan to write it in her mother Faizana's lifetime. It's full of family recipes, stories from both Khan and her mother's childhoods, and plenty of pictures – something Faizana was shocked Khan managed to collect.

When Faizana saw the book for the first time, Khan says she was “very emotional” – and also gave surprisingly little feedback. “My mother is not someone who pussyfoots around on these things. She would've told me, ‘Why didn't you put in this recipe?' – but she loved every recipe I put in, and she thought it was great, because there were things she had forgotten herself as well.”

Through writing the book, Khan began to understand “how much I am like her, in lots of ways”. She explains: “She changed things around her very gently – she was very unusual for her time, coming from a royal family and setting up a food business. Plus, she would make a point to protect women who had been abandoned by men, and protecting their children. We used to hate it, because there would be this woman suddenly working for us in the house with four or five snotty children. We would think, ‘What are these kids doing here?' But my mother would always say, ‘I want her to know she can sell food, she can cook food, she doesn't have to sell her daughters, she doesn't have to sell her body'. I think that was so radical for that time.”

Khan shares her mother's entrepreneurial spirit, opening the Darjeeling Express restaurant in London in 2017, and becoming the first British chef to feature on Netflix show Chef's Table. She's also dedicated her career to lifting up women – and has an all-female team of chefs at her restaurant (she currently wants to move to a space where the kitchen is open, so everyone can see and appreciate who's cooking the food).

“Representation matters,” she says simply. “If there's no chair at the table, take a chair and sit down.” Similar to her mother, Khan says: “I am very traditional in lots of ways, and yet I can challenge the system.”

And she's more than happy for anyone to make her dishes – so long as they try to understand and appreciate the history behind it. “The problem is when culture and food are separated. There's all this conversation about what is being appropriated. I don't care about the colour of your skin – please cook my food. But please understand the region, understand the stories. Do you know why the food is called this? Why is this spice in here? What is so sacred about the ritual of this food? If you understand all of this, please cook it – and some part of you will be honouring the women, honouring the generations from which this recipe has come down.”

Her final tip for cooking is to take your time. “The most expensive ingredient you put into a dish: time. For me, that is the core of how I still cook,” says Khan.

“It's about time and generosity – I don't cook to impress. Heal and nourish has been my philosophy, from the time I learned to cook.”

Ammu: Indian Home-Cooking To Nourish Your Soul by Asma Khan is published by Ebury Press, priced £26. Photography by Laura Edwards. Available now. Below are three recipes for you to try at home...

AMMU'S CHICKEN BIRYANI

(Serves 6)

200g plain flour

500g good-quality basmati rice

5tbsp salt

½tsp saffron strands

80ml full-fat milk

8tbsp ghee or vegetable oil (sometimes I mix both and it works really well)

2 white onions, thinly sliced into half moons

1kg skinless chicken thighs, on the bone

3 garlic cloves, crushed

5–6cm piece of fresh ginger, grated

2tbsp full-fat Greek-style yoghurt

½tsp chilli powder

2 green cardamom pods

2 cloves

1cm piece of cinnamon stick

1cm piece of mace, crushed

?tsp grated nutmeg

¼tsp sugar

Juice of ½ lemon

Method:

1. Mix the flour with enough water to make a firm dough, cover and leave to rest.

2. Wash the rice in a bowl of cold water, moving your hand in gentle circular movements in one direction to avoid breaking the delicate tips of the rice (the virtually invisible tips, if broken off, will boil rapidly when the rice goes into the hot water, because of their size, and turn into glue-like starch, which will make all the rice sticky).

3. Wash the rice in several changes of cold water until the water remains clear. Next, soak the rice. There should be at least 15–20cm of water in the bowl above the rice level. Add six teaspoons of the salt and soak the rice for at least two hours. The long soaking allows the rice to absorb water. As the rice is not hollow and dry when it is put into boiling water, the cooking time is minimised; this will help keep your rice grains long and separate.

4. Put the saffron in a small bowl. Warm the milk to tepid: my mother would describe it as blood temperature – if you touch the milk it should feel only slightly warm. If you are using a microwave to heat the milk, remember to stir the milk before checking the temperature as there may be hot spots. Pour the tepid milk over the saffron and set aside to infuse.

5. Heat the ghee or oil in a heavy-based pan over a medium-high heat and fry the onions until caramelised. Using a slotted spoon and leaving as much of the oil in the pan as possible, remove the onions to a plate, spreading them across the plate to cool.

6. Remove half the oil from the pan and set aside. In the remaining oil add the chicken and cook over a medium-high heat until golden brown on both sides. Add the garlic, ginger, yoghurt, chilli powder and two teaspoons of the salt and cook over a medium-high heat until the garlic and ginger have lost their raw smell and the yoghurt has reduced. Add half the caramelised onions, then add warm water to cover the chicken, bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for about 25 minutes. You do not want the chicken to be tender: it should still be firm, as it will be cooked further with the rice.

7. Drain the soaked rice. Boil the kettle and pour the water into a large pan. Bring back to the boil, add another six teaspoons salt, then add the drained rice and boil until the rice is three-quarters cooked (this should not take more than five minutes). To test, remove one grain from the boiling water and squeeze it. There should be a hard core to the grain of rice. When the rice reaches this stage, drain and spread it on a tray to prevent it from continuing to cook.

8. To assemble the biryani you will need a heavy-based pan with a tight-fitting lid. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken from its cooking liquid and place it in the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and pour over the chicken. Try to squeeze as much as you can from the onion/ginger/garlic residue, so the stock is nice and thick. It should just about cover the chicken pieces. Next, add the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, mace and nutmeg. Add half the saffron milk, the sugar and squeezed lemon juice. Then add the rice, ensuring it covers the chicken. On top of the rice add the remaining caramelised onions, the remaining saffron milk and the reserved oil.

9. Put the biryani pan over a high heat and wait until the steam starts coming out. Let the steam come through for one minute. Meanwhile, roll the dough into tubes and use the dough to seal the lid of the biryani pan. Put the pan on top of an iron frying pan or tawa over a medium-high heat: this is to diffuse the heat. If you do not have an iron pan, put the biryani into a preheated oven at 190°C for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, turn the oven to 150°C and leave for 20 minutes. If you are using a tawa on the hob, reduce the heat to low, cover the top of the pan with a folded clean kitchen cloth and leave for 20 minutes.

10. When ready to serve, unseal the biryani lid. Using a large spoon and starting from one side, gently lift the chicken up and mix with the rice. You need to gently merge the wet rice with the dry rice on top, so each grain is perfectly moist.

MA'S PRAWNS

(Serves 6)

3 onions

150ml mustard oil (if you can't find it, use vegetable oil)

1tsp ginger paste

½tsp garlic paste

½tsp ground turmeric

1½tsp chilli powder

½tsp ground cumin

½tsp ground coriander

2 green chillies, slit in half

1 tsp salt

1.25kg raw peeled prawns, deveined

Fresh coriander, to garnish

Method:

1. Put the onions in a food processor and blitz to a paste.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan over a medium–high heat. Add half of the onion paste and cook until it turns light brown. Add the remaining onion paste, ginger, garlic, turmeric, chilli powder, cumin, ground coriander, green chillies, salt and four tablespoons of water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

3. Remove the lid, increase the heat and cook the paste until you can see the oil coming to the surface. Add the prawns and cook, uncovered, over a medium heat for 10–15 minutes until the prawns have changed colour and are cooked through. Serve immediately, garnished with coriander.

ZARDA – SWEET RICE WITH SAFFRON AND NUTS

(Serves 4-6)

½tsp saffron strands

2tbsp milk

250g basmati rice

100g ghee or butter (or flavourless vegetable oil), plus extra for greasing

6 cloves

8 green cardamom pods

40g each shelled unsalted pistachios and unsalted blanched almonds, cut into thick slivers

30g dried apricots, cut into small cubes

150g granulated sugar

2tbsp kewra (screwpine) water or rose water

Method:

1. Put the saffron in a small bowl, warm the milk to tepid and pour over the saffron strands.

2. Gently wash the rice in a large bowl with cold water (not under running water as this will break the tips of the rice, which will make the rice sticky). Change the water several times until it looks clear, then soak the rice in cold water for at least 30 minutes or up to three hours. Drain the rice well in a strainer.

3. Bring one-and-a-half-litres of water to the boil in a large pan. Add the rice once the water is boiling and boil until it is half done. It is hard to give an exact time for this as there are too many variables, but the way to check is to remove a single grain of rice from the hot water and squeeze it between your fingers – there should still be a hard core of slightly uncooked rice. Drain the half-cooked rice in a strainer and spread the rice thinly on a platter to cool and prevent it from continuing to cook.

4. Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4.

5. Heat the ghee or butter in a heavy-based pan over a medium–high heat. Add the cloves and cardamoms, followed by the pistachios, almonds and apricots. Add 250ml of cold water and the sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves.

6. Butter a casserole dish and add the rice, then pour over the warm, spice-infused sugar syrup. Add the saffron-infused milk and stir gently to ensure the saffron is evenly distributed. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 15 minutes.

7. Take the dish out of the oven. Gently fluff the rice, then re-cover and bake for another 10–15 minutes. Remove the foil and leave the dessert to stand for a few minutes.

8. Sprinkle the kewra or rose water over the warm rice before serving.

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