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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

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Asma Khan

Surely everyone in the Asian food industry, at least, must have heard of Asma Khan. Indian Supperclubs and events flavoured with family recipes that go back four generations is what this lady does. But I had never been to a Supperclub and had no idea what to expect.

Asian restaurant review Well, yes, I had a notion that it was going to be fun and the food would likely be good but I had not expected the dishes to be so refined, so authentic, so delicious – I could affix any positive adjective, any superlative to the dishes that arrived at our table. The food was restaurant-quality, the like of which any celebrated chef would be proud. It was more surprising when one remembers that the kitchen is domestic, the chef has no formal training and the sous-chefs are Asma’s friends. What was Asma Khan’s culinary path?

Asma grew up in India in a household full of women. ‘Food was very important to us, and I think we were quite obsessive about it,’ she says. ‘At breakfast we discussed what we would eat at lunch, at lunch we discussed what we would eat at dinner! At the table we never talked about anything but the food. It was very unusual if someone talked about a problem at school, or some other event – there was almost a silence around the table, “Why are you interrupting our talk of food?” And the cooks would always come through to see that we children were eating. The atmosphere at mealtimes was wonderful, and the cooks were very much a part of that.

‘When we went to my grandfather’s house it was very embarrassing to us outsiders: the best piece of meat or the hot paratha would go not to the guest but straight to my grandfather – it was expected, the cook would come and serve my grandfather first, and that’s not part of our culture. Our food service was dictated by the fact that my grandfather got first choice – first choice of the meat, first choice of the paratha! He had this thing about a paratha having to be browned in a certain way, so he would pick which one he would have, and then everyone else was served. It seemed perfectly normal when I was growing up, it was only when I left home that I realised what a crazy household we had, and how food-obsessed we were! When I came here to Britain I began to appreciate that this was not how other people are.

‘I met my husband when he was an academic at Cambridge and I was a journalist in India; he got in touch with me to see if I could help him interview certain people. We were engaged and got married within three months of meeting – it really was quite romantic! It was a shock when I came to Cambridge. I was cold and hungry, but I couldn’t cook! I really suffered, because my husband had to eat his meals in college and spend time with his students, so I ate a lot of meals on my own. I grew up surrounded by food, I knew what dishes should taste like, but I could cook nothing. I was really depressed, and I told my mum that I wanted to get divorced because I was hungry, and she said, “Are you crazy?” I told my aunts that they had better teach me to cook really quickly and really well or I would get a divorce and the scandal would come back on the family and nobody would want to marry their daughters! Even my grandfather said, “Teach her how to cook, this is really important!”

‘The advantage was that all the hidden recipes that people had were shared with me. I am one of the few in my family who can cook everything that my great-aunts could cook.’  Everyone including cooks were anxious about Asma’s culinary predicament, and evidently sprang into action, providing recipes and masterclasses. ‘It was very emotional for me, because I learned to cook from everybody, and now I have all the original recipes, including those never before written down. Now I am cooking in the way my aunts did. I was one of the few kids who didn’t like chillies, and the cooks would bring out the food three-quarters cooked, for me to taste the spicing before they put the chillies in for the others. When I look back I see that this was the most privileged education in food that anyone could have – the varieties, the subtleties, the adaptations – it was wonderful.’

Asma learnt to cook and the marriage survived. It was very difficult to find ingredients in Cambridge at that time, and Asma had to come into London for everything she wanted. But help was once again on hand from the family back home, many of whom brought over spices and half-cooked rotis (because Asma was still learning to make round ones). ‘When we moved to London it was a lot easier, and in any case things have changed markedly in the last 22 years since we married. You can get everything here now, and fabulous quality – in some ways the quality of spices is better here than in India.

Asian restaurant review ‘I have been gifted by this education and love from so many people, and now I feel excited and proud to share it with others. For instance, there is a chilli dish in which the onions are not supposed to brown. I was taught this dish by a man who had cataracts and was blind, so he couldn’t see how I was cooking the onions. To explain how to cook them he reminded me of a pearl necklace that had once been given to me, at a time when he could still see. He said, “When the onions swell up and look like those pearls, then take them off the heat.” It is that kind of teaching that stays with me.’

But Asma didn’t consider a career in food right away. ‘I studied law, and then did my PhD part-time, which I really enjoyed, but now I can live my dream. I have 13- and 8-year old sons; they are very grown-up, and I feel that this is the time for me. I am very lucky, because my mother and grandmother never had that opportunity. I have a feeling of real liberation. Which is why I called this Supperclub venture ‘Darjeeling Express’ – that train journey of my childhood was the start of the summer holidays and you were no longer restricted in what you wore or what you did.’

Asma comes from a regal and privileged background, and I wondered if this had been a help or a hindrance. ‘I’m very aware of my heritage, from both my father’s and my mother’s side, and I respect it deeply. I’m not embarrassed about who I am or who they are; although it may be bad form these days to say that I am from a royal family, we didn’t live in that way. It’s not a burden – my grandfather gave away all his lands and the palace – but I’m conscious of my heritage, and perhaps the love of food comes from there. We didn’t have anything left after Independence, but we kept the dining table tradition alive, where everybody came together – I guess this was what my grandfather was used to before everything changed. So for me, mealtimes are very important, for the camaraderie and coming together as a family.’

I asked Asma if, as an Asian living in London, she sees cooking as a way of maintaining her kids’ contact with their mother’s culture. ‘I would really prefer my son to know his food more than his language. This is the one thing that I can transmit to him, which he can carry away with him wherever he goes, whoever he marries, whatever household he has, whatever choices he makes in his life – the fact that he can cook and will remember me cooking with him. This is the legacy I carried away, and I think it’s underrated in some Asian families.
‘I think that food is the most wonderful gift that we have, although it’s not being used as effectively as it could be to break down barriers. I teach cooking at a state school opposite my home and it’s great. They call me the ‘samosa mom’. The one skill that some immigrant women have is cooking, and they are wonderful at it, and they love it, but it’s confined to their home kitchen. They don’t understand what value they have, and I think that so much more can be done for them. I am working with a charity setting up a programme called Mummy’s Cooking, for Asian women escaping domestic violence, and I will be helping them to produce the perfect rotis and sell them locally.

Asian restaurant review I asked how Asma’s Supperclubs evolved. ‘I was very keen to have some kind of food business, but didn’t know quite what to do. I had arranged a dinner party for friends, then at the last minute four of them could not come, so I called another friend and asked him to bring anyone else he knew, because I had prepared all this food. He brought someone from the Supperclub Summit and this man called me afterwards and suggested I present one myself, because it was the most wonderful experience he had ever had; but I had to ask my friend what a Supperclub was! My first one was a sell-out – 55 people! I have had a dozen or so of them now, and I present one or two a month.’

Asma is modest but she does admit that she is getting noticed. ‘I do know I am getting somewhere, I am very lucky – but this is not just about me, I have had support from lovely people. A lot of people came forward to help me initially, and though I am more experienced now, I still need that. I don’t take it lightly, and I work very hard for the three days up to each Supperclub meal. I want to present a meal that my mother and I would enjoy together, and that is the basis on which I design each menu. The optimum number is 24. I have my first wedding Supperclub coming up – I am so excited. The couple had come to one of my dinners – a Hindu and a strict Muslim – and they have asked me to do their wedding meal for 30 here!’

What does a Supperclub mean to Asma? ‘It’s an extremely interesting concept. If someone had told me that I was going to have total strangers coming to my house and I was going to serve them food as if it was a restaurant, I would never have got into it, because it seems such an absurd idea. But I think it’s wonderful: I have been to other Supperclubs and know other Supperclub chefs, and it gives you the opportunity to offer home-cooked food, food that we have grown up eating. People are adventurous – in the past I would have hesitated to go to someone else’s house, but now of course I would go.’

Yes, the family palace might be a thing of the past but to many she is considered the Rani of the Subcontinental Range, and the Queen of the Indian Supperclub. She is now being recognised as a skilled and dedicated food professional in the wider gastronomic arena.

Visit Asma Khan here

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