Fruits, Shoots, Restaurants & Roots
At its simplest, food is the global unifier – we all need it. But the way we grow, commodify, transport, eat and respect our food needs to change. Restaurants, too, must take up their responsibilities, says Asma Khan.
Food was the glue that held my family together. India in the 1970s and ’80s did not have the distractions of television, mobile phones and social media. Often the discussion over a meal centred around what we were going to eat for the next one. The only form of entertainment was eating at home and occasionally going to the local Chinese restaurant. There was a sacredness in eating with the family, a rhythm with which food was passed between family members. Often my mother would serve my favourite piece of chicken to ensure I got what I liked. We ate in respectful silence. The only noise was appreciative comments about a particular dish, which would lead to a conversation about another dish. Now these are just memories.
The pandemic has been interesting because it placed me in the unfamiliar position of being a full-time mother to my two sons. They didn’t seem able to understand or appreciate my requests for no phone or TV at the table. I realised that eating had now become something people did while the rest of the world was their focus. One of the reasons I started cooking was because I wanted to look into the eyes of the person eating my food. I began with supper clubs at home so I had the pleasure of serving people at my own dining table. The most beautiful moment was when silence fell as people began to eat. That silence took me back to my parent’s hushed dining table during my childhood in Calcutta.
One of the benefits of the pandemic is that many people found themselves at home and a lot of them decided to cook. This has been one of the few positive things to come out of 2020. I often read posts from people who said that they were trying to replicate dishes that their mum and grandma had made. This hopefully represents a tidal change in our attitudes towards cooking. It’s often difficult for those for those who have ample food, heating and clothing to appreciate how easy it is to fall into the trap of buying ready-made food – most of it made up of carbs and of low nutritional value. Often the reason people don’t cook food for the family is because they have neither time nor energy. Plus fast food is often cheap. Life is so challenging that the satisfaction of an affordable, instant meal is often the only way for some people to face the next day.
Yet cities and towns all over Britain have amazing markets with beautiful food produce. While it’s not always cheap, seasonal produce is often reduced – so instead of buying asparagus grown out of season in a faraway land, you can eat what is in season grown in your own country. It’s about changing your food habits to make them fit in with what is easily available in your region. The other advantage is that locally grown seasonal food is so much tastier than produce that has been refrigerated and aerated around the world. I come from a country where the bazaar was always a great leveller and people rubbed shoulders with neighbours they might not normally associate with. Particularly during the pandemic, open-air farmers’ markets have become community hubs.
One of the important things the pandemic presented to us was how the entire environment changed because of the reduction in car pollution and noise. You had deer and wild boar running through towns and my family could see the mountains from their village in India for the first time in a generation. We’d always heard they were there but pollution had hidden them.
I think the time has come for restaurants to contribute to environmental change by being responsible about how they source their ingredients. Not everybody looks at seasonality and it is often only the high-end fine dining places that wear this as a badge of honour. Sadly, however well-intentioned, the impact of top restaurants on the environment is minimal because those who can afford fine dining are such a tiny minority. So we need to remove the elitism often associated with sustainability. Sourcing food locally and seasonally and therefore sustainably must become an important issue for a broad church and not just for a microscopic group of expensive restaurateurs.
The hospitality industry is unfortunately an industry first and hospitable second. There is not enough discussion in many restaurants about food’s origins, roots or terroir. When
I opened my restaurant one of the first things that I had decided was that I was not going to fly in produce from India and Africa. I often hear that buying produce from developing countries is good for the economy. This is the presumption that there is a trickle-down effect and that farmers benefit from international trade. In reality it is the fertiliser and genetically modified mafia that benefit from this trade. My father is a farmer and I have seen the destruction of the livelihoods of farmers who grow produce for the western market.
There is also an alarming lack of knowledge about, and connection with, where food comes from. I went to a ‘show and tell’ class at my son’s nursery school and when I produced an onion and asked where it came from most of them said Tesco. Considering this was a London school it was perhaps not that surprising – but there is a universal disconnect between those who produce and cook the food and those who eat it. The national curriculum no longer encourages cooking classes in schools, which is really where we can start making a change. I have cooked with children in primary schools and it’s extremely rewarding. Children don’t waste the food they cook. We seem to have failed the present generation but we can start again with the next one.
Come the future, I think there is going to be a different attitude toward restaurants. This could go two ways. After cooking and washing up for many weeks during lockdown, customers might appreciate their dining experience more by valuing the labour and service that goes into it. They will perhaps understand these need to be reflected in the price alongside the cost of ingredients. They might start to criticise less and appreciate the experience more. The other thing that could happen is that the customers might go out less but when they do, they will want to have a meaningful experience and memorable meal that they’re prepared to pay more for. This is something that restaurateurs must strive to deliver. We need to claim back our space as diverse healers and feeders.
London has an abundance of immigrant food and the best of it is found in areas where there are big immigrant communities demanding lots of home cooking. The Indian subcontinent’s long association with Britain has resulted in a rich heritage of South Asian cuisine. One would think this would lead to better communication between these communities but sadly that is not the case. Food is an enormous opportunity for people to break bread together and understand each other’s culture. It’s so important that food isn’t viewed separately from its culture but sadly a lot of ethnic food is reduced to a cheap and cheerful exotic commodity on the fringes of society. The irony is that for many communities providing that cuisine, food is sacred. It is part of their DNA.
As chefs and restaurateurs from different cultures, we have an enormous opportunity and we’re failing if we’re not telling our stories. Our restaurants could be so much more than businesses. They are potentially bridges between ourselves and the rest of the community. It’s equally important that media and television, which cover food, give space to diverse faces and voices. I have no problem with the media depicting people of all cultures cooking my food but I do take issue when my food is represented without the cultural context and respect it deserves. Food was glue for my family and I have always believed in its adhesive power to unite people. The time for it to play a central and healing role in Britain starts right now.
Asma Khan is an Indian-born British chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. She owns Darjeeling Express restaurant in London’s Soho and was profiled in the sixth season of the Netflix series Chef’s Table.
Photography: Alexandra Dao
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