Book review: Asma’s Indian Kitchen

Asma's Indian Kitchen cookbook jacket Pavilion books

Many, many articles have been written detailing the numerous and varied achievements of Indian cook – she refuses to be referred to as ‘chef’ – Asma Khan, and more still explaining why this woman engenders such a happy reception from everyone she encounters.

To understand all of that, you can read those articles (perhaps start with this particularly illuminating one authored by Anna Sulan Masing). This piece has another purpose: to express deep pride in a longtime friend whom I’ve seen evolve from an at-home host with aptitude into a super-successful professional restaurateur who’s currently a bit of a darling of London’s culinary scene – with her very own episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table in the pipeline to boot.

And now she’s brought out a cookbook. Asma always wanted to share her family’s history and traditions though a cookbook, even back when she didn’t own – or want to own – a set of scales. Like most Indian cooks, she didn’t cook according to recipes, but according to instinct. It’s called ‘andaaz’ and, to most non-Indians and many younger-generation Indians, the concept is one that’s both alien and terrifying.

Asma Khan - Photo credit to Justin Lambert

But if, like Asma, you’ve mastered the art of andaaz but don’t get along with the prescriptive, formulaic and often unforgiving nature of written recipes, translating all those dishes you’ve always created so instinctively into ingredient weights, cooking times and pan sizes is equally alien and terrifying.

She’s done a stellar job. Of course she has. I expected nothing less. Asma is bloody minded and it’s always served her well. If she wants to do something, she’ll learn to do it competently, not halfheartedly. In her world, ‘it’ll do’ just won’t do.

Asma’s Indian Kitchen is a beautiful book; its cover in the style of a retro Bollywood film, embellished with gold leaf like a festive sweetmeat (perhaps one of the laddoos its author loves so dearly); its pages littered with evocative images of India by true talent and all-round good egg Ming Tang Evans.

Market - Image credit to Ming Tang-EvansThe book also delivers when it comes to the food shots. Although delicious almost without exception, Indian food is notoriously hard to photograph. But, through lighting, prop selection and canny compositions, Kim Lightbody’s images manage to make every dish look as good as it tastes.

And, despite having just received my copy, I know just how good many of these dishes taste, because they are genuinely the recipes Asma and her all-female team have been cooking and serving at her Darjeeling Express supperclubs, pop-ups and restaurant since it all began back in 2012.

The notion of being able to authentically recreate those dishes in your own home is music to the ears of those of us who’d travel the length and breadth of the London tube map or even farther afield for Asma’s tengri kababs, malaikari or tamatar ka cutt; but Asma’s Indian Kitchen is far more than a chronicle of Darjeeling Express’s greatest hits.

Asma's Indian KItchen

Divided into chapters devoted to dinners-a-deux, family meals, cooking for friends, and celebratory feasting, the book draws both from Asma’s diverse – and noble – family heritage (Rajput, Bengali and Bihari, with close links to Hyderabad) and her time in cosmopolitan (then) Calcutta; a city of notorious epicures, where good food is universally adored and embraced irrespective of its origin.

Flipping through Asma’s Indian Kitchen is rather like sharing a cup of chai and a good old gupshup with the author herself – the conversation frequently food-focussed but meandering off into an anecdote about a much-loved family cook here, the tale of a dying tradition there, the odd history lesson thrown in for good measure.

With so many recipes already offered to feed one’s imagination and appetite, it’d be greedy to ask for more – but I do hope the sequel dips into Asma’s fabulous Indo-Chinese repertoire and reveals the secrets of the kati rolls I could eat infinitely and exclusively. Like a superstar DJ, this talent has every right to refuse requests. But that doesn’t mean I’m not getting mine in now.

Image credits: Ming Tang Evans and Kim Lightbody, courtesy of Pavilion Books


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