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1903 Asma Khan New 1 ;

Alumni Voices: 'Like King's, my new recipe is very inclusive'

Dr Asma Khan FKC (Law 1999; PhD Law 2013) is one of the UK’s most prominent female chefs. A vocal advocate for food justice, she founded Darjeeling Express in 2017. The restaurant includes Hollywood star Danny DeVito among its fans. Asma recently returned to campus to teach our chefs how to cook a new vegetable biryani, which is now available across all King’s Food catering outlets…

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Why are you back on campus, Asma?

I’m in the kitchens at our campus on The Strand helping to create King’s Biryani. Like King’s, this new recipe is inclusive. Everyone can have it because it’s plant-based and the ingredients are inexpensive.

It’s also a one-pot dish, so whether it’s being served to royalty or a rural family with a lower income, everyone gets the same food from the same pot. Unless you have unique dietary requirements, everyone should be able to eat this.

Is there a focus on healthy eating with King’s Biryani?

People often don’t eat enough vegetables and the variety of them can be limited. The advantage with this dish is that we’ve put in things such as a cauliflower and peas, which are seasonal vegetables in the UK at the moment. I’m hoping users will experiment and add in frozen or other vegetables.

You studied law at King’s. What are your favourite memories of your time here?

I remember having tea with my friends in Tutu’s. On long afternoons between lectures, we’d watch the Thames flow by. That would trigger conversations and memories about rivers and life in our home countries. Many of us were not from the UK. That spot offered a place where we connected.

Why is this dish special for you?

It ties in with those memories of King’s. It was always a very inclusive place. I was part of a diverse and international student body. We all celebrated and accepted our different backgrounds when we came together to study. There was a definite bond between us. This is a memory I was trying to honour when I was creating this recipe.

Does cooking still give you the same joy now it’s your business?

It gives me a huge amount of pleasure and I remain passionate about it. It’s challenging work and it’s long hours, which is why I have a huge amount of respect for the chefs I’m working with at King’s. They’re passionate and enthusiastic. It’s clear that cooking for people remains a joy for them.

It is for me, too. This job is driven by passion. It’s rarely just for the pay cheque. Since Brexit, there’s also a massive shortage of chefs in kitchens. We should be grateful for the ones we still have.

You’ve enjoyed a varied career. How do you see yourself?

I’m a chef but I also see myself as an activist, a disruptor and as someone who isn’t afraid to speak up.

For example, how we see women in kitchens and home cooks has to change. Society sometimes views age and health in the kitchen a bit like a combat sport. It promotes the myth that women in their 40s no longer have a role to play in these environments. But that isn’t the case. When someone has cooked all their life for family and friends, she is an asset here.

You work for the United Nations World Food Programme. Can you tell me about that?

I’ve worked with the UN for a number of years. I was happy to accept when the World Food Programme asked me to be their Chef Advocate. I’ve visited refugee camps in this role.

I also set up a café in Northern Iraq in a refugee camp for survivors of ISIS. The women here make bread and cakes. The café is now self-sufficient and they’re entrepreneurs. Food can unite women and provide opportunities for healing and enterprise. It can change narratives, lift up women and give people hope.

Finally, is it true that Danny DeVito wanted to invest in your business?

Danny came to dine in Darjeeling Express. I was so in awe of him that I didn’t dare take pictures. I asked my staff not to draw attention to him when he was eating. But he was so enthusiastic about the food that he started talking very loudly. Everyone instantly recognised him. Once word got out, we ended up with a crowd of people outside the restaurant.

He loved the food and he met all of my staff. He said we should open a venue in Los Angeles. He offered to help us set it up, too. I remain in awe of him. He was kind and genuine. If I’m allowed to drop another celebrity name, it was Kiera Knightley who told him to visit us. She was a regular at our restaurant.

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