Chef Asma Khan: ‘Women as collectives have the strength to withstand everything’

The restaurateur and cookbook author tells Ella Walker about the impact of a trip she took on behalf of Islamic Relief UK’s Ramadan appeal.

The holy month of Ramadan has kicked off, and until June 4, Muslims around the world will be fasting during daylight hours, before eating together at sunset.

For many though, there’s still not enough food to break the fast, which is why Islamic Relief UK runs its Ramadan appeal – to provide support and food aid for those in need.

Chef Asma Khan, famed for her supper club-turned-restaurant Darjeeling Express, and for being the first British chef to feature in the Netflix Emmy-nominated Chef’s Table, went to Jordan to see the charity’s Ramadan distribution campaign. While there, she visited a refugee camp for Syrian and Palestinian refugees, where she cooked with a group of Syrian women, almost all of whom had lost children to airstrikes, disease or accident.

Often with refugees, the first notion – understandably – is to “give them food, give them food, give them food,” says Khan, but hunger is just one issue facing those who have been forced to flee their homes. Food alone does not solely counteract “the hollowness inside and the emptiness and fear, and all the things you may have seen in a war zone”.

Being in a position to cook together, as a collective, can make a huge difference though, which is why Khan was curious to see a safe space created at the camp, to give psychological support to these women.

At first, Khan was aware they might see her as an outsider, but realised “once I start cooking and eating with them, I will be one of them, because I know that’s how food works. When you cook together it is a great leveller; but it’s also a great elevator”.

(Islamic Relief/Alice Carfrae/PA)

Khan moved to Cambridge from Calcutta in 1991, starting a supper club to combat her own sense of loneliness and homesickness, and to build a community around herself.

“I wanted people to share the food I knew,” she recalls. “I went through years of emptiness and I missed home. I wanted to share that, but I also wanted someone to be in my space, who I could feed, who understood who I was by eating my food, so next time they see someone the colour of skin that I am; the faith that I have; the name that I have; maybe with the accent I do; they may remember the meal, and may want to talk to this person and not feel that they’re so different from them.”

Khan describes food as though it’s a bridge between people, but also as a path back to yourself and your history.

(Islamic Relief/Alice Carfrae/PA)

“They had lost everything, but they had not forgotten who they are in that symbolic meal [of chicken and rice] they made for me,” she says of the Syrian women, one of whom broke down, because the dish they were making was her son and her brother’s favourite “and as they can longer taste it, she had never made it again”, explains Khan. “But she made it for me because I had come there, not knowing this, and asked.

“They reminded me of the bamboo in my backyard in India; when the wind used to blow really hard, they bent, but they never broke,” says Khan of the women’s resilience. “They showed it in the love with which they cooked the food.

“Women as collectives have the strength to withstand everything,” she adds. “We can, as a collective, bring down every wall, break the ceiling, and push everybody up – because I rise by raising others.”

(Islamic Relief/Alice Carfrae/PA)

Of the women she met, who were largely from affluent, happy homes and desperately want to move on, she says: “If they join up together, they can move forward.”

And there is hope to be found. “I went because I was curious what would happen if you put women together and cook,” says Khan, “and the result was incredible.”

- Press Association

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