Chef Asma Khan to stir debate on politics of food at Belfast festival
One of the most influential Indian chefs in the world told a Belfast audience yesterday that food is as much about politics and power as it is about nourishment and family gatherings.
Asma Khan was in Belfast to promote the forthcoming Jaipur Literary Festival supported by the Arts Council and British Council of Northern Ireland and which will host a satellite mini festival here next month, compared the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 with the situation on the island of Ireland.
As Muslims, her family chose to stay in India rather than flee to Pakistan despite the vast wave of ethnic cleansing that ensued.
"For me, therefore, food is deep rooted in my identity, something which declares that my culture has a will to live, survive and thrive. What better way to do this in a peaceful yet assertive way than through food?" she said.
After years of home pop-ups where she met south Asian women and got to know after moving to England in the 1980s, she eventually opened her own restaurant. Today the chefs in her Darjeeling Express London's Carnaby Street are all the same women.
"I learned to cook from my mother and family not as a young child, but as an adult. This new-found ability happened to complement a passion I also had for equality and my home in India, where daughters are traditionally viewed as inferior," she said.
Using food to help women out of low paying jobs, her kitchen staff are all former nannies and manual workers who are now hailed as among the best Indian chefs in Britain.
"Food is definitely about power and politics, and while I don't say I use it as a weapon, I do use it as a unifying force and to take political steps, particularly in the field of gender equality."
To this end her charity Second Daughters Fund, to which a percentage of the profits from the restaurant is channelled, is able to support second daughters who are even less respected through education.
Author of Asma's Indian Kitchen, her appearance at the Northern Ireland satellite Jaipur Literary Festival promises to be more about the politics of food than handy cookery hints, although this will not be ignored, revealed Joris Minne, who will interview her on stage as part of the JLF programme. "Her book focuses heavily on techniques and the ways to achieve authentic Indian dishes," he said.
"I have every intention of getting to the bottom of the Indian cuisine mysteries. Do the dishes we serve here bear any relation to what south Asians eat in south Asia? And if they don't, I'll be imploring Asma Khan to show us what is real!"
Her interview will be conducted in the Lyric Theatre bar on June 22 at 1pm. Speakers include author Namita Gokhale, historian and writer William Dalrymple, journalist Susan McKay, Mahatma Gandhi's granddaughter Tara Gandhi, a public welfare champion worker, and many more top thinkers and writers.
For full details visit www.jlflitfest.org/belfast