Asian Cuisine’s Rise, and Triumph; Women who are transforming the food industry as we know it

by Fawad Kaiser 8 June 2019

Careers for women were once expected to follow a certain trajectory, one that involved limited leadership opportunities and the expectation to fulfil domestic and maternal roles. But these days, not only are women rising to the challenge of Britain’s top level jobs, they’re also starting their own business empires.

The capital is brimming with female success stories and women who are fulfilling their potential – just the inspiration women across the globe need. Aida Khan, British trained Pakistani Chef brings about the new wave of London game-changers who are building their brands from the ground up.A culture fueled by constant content creation and clicks—which props up the narrative of combative kitchens and tempestuous, tatted-up bad boys as the standard of excellence in restaurants—has sidelined go-it-alone chefs like Alex Raij of La Vara, Txikito, and El Quinto Pino, who posits that men are inherently better at selling themselves and packaging their own stories.

That makes her one of many women determined to affect change from the inside. Aida Khan co- founder of the Shola kitchen, is most certainly another who has used her own experience as a restaurateur to inform the way she uplifts women in the industry.

As 2019 continues, there will be many questions about the Asian cuisine’s rise, and triumph in the upcoming months. There is a false perception among the general public and in the eyes of some in the industry as well, that not many women work in restaurants  that traditionally women just don’t work in the food industry, despite the long association between women and the kitchen. However, this just isn’t the case. Aida Khan co-founder and British trained Chef of Shola kitchen is a mother from Karachi, Pakistan and has been settled in UK for last few years. She is a powerful woman behind our grocery store experience and everyday choices, in the space where Asian food is made, dished and sold. But beyond taste there is power — the power to affect what millions of people crave, eat, and buy.

In the past few years, there has been a rise in the idea of the female celebrity chef and the female celebrity restaurant owner. For instance: Lisa Vanderpump, television celebrity and co-owner of SUR and nine other restaurants and bars across the world. But Vanderpump is far from an anomaly. She is in great company when it comes to female restaurant owners. Question is how hard is it to be a chef, an overseas person and a mother with young children?

Presenting it as an amuse-bouche at her restaurant in the heart of London city, to a predominantly non-Asian clientele, is fascinating. For despite UK’s long, complicated love affair with Asian cooking, it is hard to imagine such a food, so alien to Western culinary ideals in appearance, aroma, flavor and texture, being served in this kind of setting, let alone embraced, a decade ago.

This, though, is the new British palate. As a nation once beholden to the Old World traditions of early settlers; Britain’s now crave ingredients from farther shores. The briny rush of soy; ginger’s low burn; pickled cabbage with that heady funk so close to rot. Vinegar applied to everything. Fish sauce like the underbelly of the sea. Palm sugar, velvet to cane sugar’s silk. Coconut milk slowing the tongue. Smoky black cardamom with its menthol aftermath. Sichuan peppercorns that paralyze the lips and turn speech to a burr, and Thai bird chilies that immolate everything they touch. Fat rice grains that cling that you can scoop up with your hands.

These are British ingredients now, part of a movement in cooking that often gets filed under the melting-pot, free-for-all category of New British cuisine. But it’s more specific than that: this is food borne of a particular diaspora, made by chefs who are “third culture generation,” heirs to both their parents’ culture and the one they were raised in, and thus forced to create their own.

Could we call it Asian-British cuisine? The term is problematic, subsuming countries across a vast region with no shared language or single unifying religion. When I asked British chefs of Asian heritage whether their cooking could be considered Asian-British cuisine, there was always a pause, and sometimes a sigh.

So to these chefs’ cooking is a mixture of nostalgia and resilience. It was not taught certainly not in the way other cuisines have been traditionally taught. Aida Khan recalls that time beholden to their parents’ was devoted to Asian cooking. There is a unique foreignness that persists, despite the presence of Asians on British soil for more than half a century. For Asian-British chefs, this seesaw between the obligations of inheritance and the thrill of go-it-aloneness, between respecting your ancestors and lighting out for the hills, manifests in dishes that arguably could come only from minds fluent in two ways of life.

But the question remains: Does calling this kind of cooking Asian-British cuisine deepen and contextualize our understanding of it, or is it just a label, like speaking of Asian-British art or fiction — a way of simplifying a complex story and making it a marketable cliché? The danger is marginalizing Asian features, a tendency that diminishes the explicit reference to his roots. Aida Khan believes that at the same time, it seems reductive to expect Asian-British chefs to make food that somehow does not reflect their personal “story.” It is hard not to hear an echo of the trope of the inscrutable Pakistani Chef, whose motives can’t be deciphered, and the common criticism of Asian-British at school and at work as being overly cerebral and lacking feeling.

Who shapes what you eat? We all know the cool girls, the women who inspire us to eat deliciously, from the ur-influencer Julia Child to the spotlight idols of today: Ina Garten, Chrissy Teigen, Alison Roman and her ubiquitous cookies, the bloggers and tastemakers of Instagram. It’s time to reclaim the phrase “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” — because lots of ladies are killing it in that very place.

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