Excerpts from an interview:
Do you miss Indian food in London?
Oh, the list is very long! There’s so much variety in Indian cuisine that’s made back home in Kolkata. Two things that I miss the most are fresh water fish like Rohu or Katla which we don’t get in London and the smoked, barbecued dishes —all kinds of kebabs that we do so beautifully in my family. I really wish to have a tandoor here!
How do you approach sustainability in your restaurant?
I have a very strict philosophy about using fresh, local produce at the restaurant. I do not fly in any ingredients from India; we use organic vegetables and fruits available locally in Britain, so the carbon footprint on my menu is quite low. We make bhegetable chops a la Bangali style with fresh vegetables found in the season; we make misti kumro delicacies over the pumpkin season that are quite a hit. It’s impossible to do without the authentic Indian spices and masalas to bring in the flavours, so I get those shipped from India. However, they don’t come packed in tonnes of plastic and are less disruptive to the environment.
What are your thoughts on the evolving food scene in Kolkata?
There seems to be a shift in what people are doing and eating. It’s at times painful to see what's happening in Kolkata— the change in technology and the rise of fusion and other trendy food concepts is causing many old food establishments to just disappear. While places like Peter Cat and Flurry’s are till around, they have changed to quite an extent. For me, Calcutta and its food that I loved, is changing rapidly. While change is inevitable, I just hope that in the next 10 years, iconic places that Kolkata is well-known for, such as Aminia, Nizam's, Arsalan, and Kasturi don’t shut down. In the face of modern food concepts such as Instagrammable restaurants and fusion foods, traditional old timers that serve authentic Bengali cuisine should not lose out.
What is your take on modern progressive Indian food?
It's interesting to see how people are using their creativity and putting in a lot of intellect into the food they are cooking. It's a fascinating process, however, it is not the kind of food I would like to eat or cook. Progressive style of cooking is great to celebrate creativity by giving food a different look and feel to it. It’s important to realise that this style of food should not be made to make Indian food more acceptable outside India and to please the foreign palate.
What does cultural appropriation mean to you?
The thing with cultural appropriation is that when the dominant culture takes away from the minority culture, something intrinsically valuable to them, is lost. My position on cultural appropriation is simple—I will not allow anyone to eat my food if they have not learned to respect me. You cannot take my food if you don't honour me. One needs to understand why food is sacred and what is it that you're giving back to the communities.
You have started a movement within the food industry with your restaurant and all-female team to discuss deeper societal issues, how do you plan to take this ahead?
I don’t see the restaurant just as a business but as a means to empower people and women to be specific. I am interested in using food as a tool to seek justice for several issues that start within the food industry but go deeper. And, no not because I'm a lawyer, but this is my driving ambition and desire. Be it for the cause of home chefs, who are just disregarded for cooking, or women who have to sell their bodies to survive; I want to use the restaurant, my position of strength in the food industry to discuss these. It bothers me to see how people discriminate based on faith, gender, sexuality, educational qualification or even colour. I feel that change can only happen when you gather enough voices. It is why social media is very important for me. I urge modern chefs to talk about these issues, use their social media platforms to address these issues and talk about justice. The fact that people look up to you, and respect what you're doing, gives you a moral duty to talk about things that are important. It’s not enough to sit there and just enjoy the fame and money and not actually give back to the community. Food is about politics, who eats, who doesn’t; when they eat, how they eat- it’s deeper than what it looks like.
Food trends to watch out for?
The trend towards more plant-based cuisine is a positive one, although it should not be taken to an extreme, and should not become a religion. Secondly, the movement towards sustainability, and traceability, so you can trace farm to fork and understand where your food comes from. In the rush of chasing sustainable and organic food trends, we should not ignore the conditions that are required to chase these trends. I would like to see who is picking my raspberries, what are the working conditions, and how are the wages? While everyone wants to save a quick buck, it doesn’t always benefit the farmer or the resources used. For instance, you can buy cheap cashew nuts over expensive ones, but how many of us care to lend a thought to the fact that the farmer’s hands who work with cashew nuts are treated with acid? It's not good enough to know that you are encouraging organic or veganism as a trend, what’s important is to understand the entire cycle and then endorse it.
One cooking technique that can’t be learnt from YouTube?
The art of caramelising onions! It’s an art that requires a lot of time and practice and often umpteen cooking disasters. Slowly caramelised onions have an amazing depth of flavour, but they require slow and steady heat achieve the perfect amount of crispiness without getting burnt.
Photos Courtesy: Asma Khan, Instagram