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Chef Numra Siddiqui, who operates the Pakistani restaurant Empress Market in addition to supper clubs

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At London’s South Asian Supper Clubs, Dinner Is Served With a Story

These intimate gatherings offer chefs a place to share the food — and the stories — of their homeland

In the living room of her apartment in West London, Asma Khan delicately removes a seal of dough from the edges of a large pot to unveil a saffron-scented lamb dum biryani. She serves it in an intricately carved silver platter that belonged to her great-grandmother’s trousseau; when it lands on the table, Khan tells the 20-odd diners how this biryani is characteristic of the version prepared in Calcutta — her birthplace. But now, the dish has become a typical offering at the supper clubs that Khan began hosting in her home in 2012.

Often discreet and frequently esoteric, supper clubs involve dining with strangers in intimate venues, from the chef’s own dining table to an abandoned subway carriage to a restaurant space rented out for the evening. While Instagram might indicate that supper clubs are currently having a moment, they have in fact been around for decades.

The original supper clubs, including the Prohibition-era speakeasies in Wisconsin or Cuba’s paladares, embodied an element of rebellion and secrecy. In Britain, the earliest known incarnation of the supper club was the Half Hundred Club, founded in 1937 by a group of socialists as a poor man’s food and wine society that hosted its meals in unlikely venues such as the London Zoo or the cinema. But over the decades, the tradition of supper clubs in London has evolved and flourished, both as an antidote to impersonal and overpriced restaurants and in response to growing interest in casual gatherings to cultivate social connections over food.

London is home to a large diaspora community from South Asian countries — mainly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — due to colonial ties; the city is arguably home to the most diverse array of South Asian cuisine found anywhere in Europe or North America. In recent years the supper club format has been fervently embraced by many female chefs of South Asian heritage, for whom it serves an important function beyond road-testing their cooking and providing diners a homey experience: Hosting supper clubs has provided them an avenue for sharing food cultures from lesser-known geographical regions and ethnic and religious communities. For some, supper clubs are also an opportunity to reclaim the narrative of their culinary traditions, especially when their cuisine has often been unimaginatively interpreted or presented in reductive ways in mainstream Indian restaurants.

Asma Khan, chef-owner of Darjeeling Express.
Siddiqui, outside her Empress Market.

Khan, who owns the acclaimed restaurant Darjeeling Express and will be the first British chef to be featured on Netflix Chef’s Table in Season 6, owes her success to hosting supper clubs that both enabled her to perfect her culinary craft and acquainted diners with the delicacies prepared in Muslim households across India. Khan claims her repertoire of dishes cannot be found in any restaurants in London or in India.

“I cook the food of 1930s undivided India and serve dishes based on recipes that have been in my family since the early 20th century,” she says. “There is no element of modernization or fusion to cater to a Western palate.” The idea of hosting supper clubs appealed to Khan because her menu didn’t fit into one neat category. “I cook the food of Western Uttar Pradesh, which is where my paternal family hails from, food from Calcutta, my birthplace, and Hyderabad, a city I lived in for five years. The unifying thread in my menu is my own life story.”

For Khan, supper clubs are also an extension of South Asian hospitality, and the format is better suited to serving family-style platters of food than would logistically be possible in a restaurant. “When I first heard about supper clubs it sounded just like a daawat [the Urdu/Hindi word for a feast with a large number of people] — extended family or friends show up and you serve them a lot of family-style dishes,” says Khan. “It felt natural to me because that is how we entertain guests in India.”

Since opening her restaurant last summer, Khan has offered free use of the premises on Sundays to other women who want to host supper clubs, enabling them to gain practice and develop confidence in working out of a professional kitchen. “Lowering barriers to entry in the food business for other women chefs of color — who are often not professionally trained and specializing in a niche cuisine that people are unfamiliar with — is incredibly important to me,” Khan says, noting that many factors, from systemic misogyny to difficulty in attracting capital and investment, impede women’s success in food businesses. She’s on a mission to challenge the status quo and use her success as a supper club host and entrepreneur to empower and encourage other women of color to kickstart their own food ventures.

On a balmy afternoon in July, cousins Asma Bandey and Samma Ishaq Hafeez host an afternoon tea at Khan’s Darjeeling Express. The duo launched Kashmiri Table earlier this year with the aim of bringing culinary experiences to London, Boston, and New York that offer a lens into the rich and varied tapestry of food and chai culture in their hometown of Srinagar, India.

Bandey and Hafeez are British and American respectively, with Kashmiri roots. Through Kashmiri Table, they aim to be ambassadors for a cuisine they believe has often been othered and exoticized — not just in the West, but even within South Asia. “We have an extensive food culture but there is little awareness about it outside of Kashmir,” Bandey says. “Often the dishes on Indian restaurant menus that claim to be Kashmiri are vague interpretations that don’t resemble the food actually cooked in Kashmiri homes. Our cuisine is not gastronomic acrobatics; it is sustenance-based and focused on local produce.”

Chef Sapna Ajwani prepares a meal in her home.

Through hosting supper clubs and afternoon teas, the duo aims to foster an appreciation for the soothing pale pink nun chai (prepared by boiling tea leaves and baking soda and then adding milk and salt) and other wholesome dishes eaten regularly in Kashmiri homes, such as tsoont (sweet and sour apple curry with mild spices), nadr thi moong daal (lotus root with mung beans) and yakhni thi maaz (yogurt-based curry with cinnamon, cardamon, fennel, clove, and mint).

“The existing narrative, especially in the mainstream media relating to Kashmir, tends to be focused on the politics and conflict,” Bandey says. “Our goal is to create a more holistic understanding of the region and to reclaim the narrative around ‘Kashmiri-ness’ by being a well-researched source and ultimately shifting the discussion away from politics, and food is a great starting point.”

Bandey finds that supper clubs are a great initial step to acquaint people with an unfamiliar cuisine and to help them understand the broader cultural context of meals. “Supper club diners are willing to be taken on a journey,” she says. “At our brunch supper club in Miami we chose to plate each course rather than serve it all at once so we could introduce each dish with an anecdote. For example, we served a childhood favorite, zombre thool thi khoshak tamatar (fried eggs in a tomato reduction with ginger, garlic, and green chiles), alongside a story of memories it evokes for us of summers in Srinagar. The story left a more lasting impression of the dish in people’s minds.”

For British-Pakistani chef Numra Siddiqui, hosting supper clubs as part of her food startup Empress Market is an opportunity to initiate dialogue around colonial history and identity politics in Britain. In May, she hosted a six-course supper club presenting a menu that traversed the length of the Grand Trunk Road (GT Road), an ancient trade and travel route that extends from Kabul, Afghanistan through Northern Pakistan and culminates in Calcutta, India. Each course captured the iconic dishes served in the provinces along the GT Road, such as chapli kabab (flat minced beef kabob), masala fried fish from Lahore, and pasanday (beef stew with aniseed and cardamom, a Mughal specialty from the royal courts). Siddiqui’s vision for the supper club was to showcase the similarities between the food traditions in the different regions and how they influenced each other over the centuries through trade, conquest, and migration.

Siddiqui believes that supper clubs have gained traction because there is a growing appetite among diners to engage in a more conversational way with the people who prepare their food and to learn more about how identity and food are intertwined. In between courses at the supper club, Numra’s mother, Salma, read excerpts from her recently published memoir narrating her family’s journey from India to Pakistan during Partition and the violent aftermath in which over a million people died.

“Food is intrinsically political and we shouldn’t shy away from having political conversations,” Siddiqui says. “While it’s not always pleasant to be hearing grim stories while you are enjoying a meal, it is also important to not look away from our troubled colonial history, especially since colonialism was built on the trade of spices and other food commodities.” She notes that people who come to the supper club seem instantly engaged with the stories and display a genuine curiosity to learn more.

Chef Sapna Ajwani, who hoses the Sindhi Gusto supper club.

Another community that was uprooted from their homes during Partition were Hindus living in Sindh, a province bordering Rajasthan, India that became part of the newly created Pakistan in 1947. During Partition, there was an exodus of Hindu Sindhi families to various parts of India. Sapna Ajwani’s family was one of them; they made the journey to Rajasthan initially and then settled in Bombay. Sapna moved to London over a decade ago and set up the Sindhi Gusto supper club in 2016.

Sindh’s location as a seaport along the historic Silk Road meant that over the centuries it was influenced by Persian and Central Asian cooking. Muslim rulers controlled Sindh for centuries, and their influence is reflected in the prominence of meat in Sindhi cuisine. Ajwani notes that brain-to-tail eating is a feature of Sindhi cuisine — a rarity amongst Hindu communities in India. Similar to Persian cuisine, herbs such as dill, coriander, and fenugreek take center stage, while rice is prepared with oil and salt to form a crust on the bottom, similar to a Persian tahdig. Ajwani hosts quarterly supper clubs in London to introduce diners to dishes that cannot be found on any restaurant menu, either in India or abroad, including traditional specialties such as mirchan ji chaat (chili fritters in yogurt), methi mein macchi (fish steaks on the bone cooked in fresh fenugreek) and sai bhaji (spinach, sorrel, dill, and lentil stew).

While the logical next step for a supper club host might be opening a restaurant, that may not always be financially prudent: London has seen a recent spate of restaurant closures due to exorbitant leases, rising rents, and a shortage of skilled laborers as a result of restrictive work visa policies that are likely to become even more stringent after Brexit.

“Opening a restaurant is a large undertaking and selling a niche concept to both investors and customers is an uphill task,” Ajwani says. Though she hasn’t completely ruled out the prospect of opening a restaurant in the distant future, Ajwani’s current focus lies on educating diners about Sindhi food culture through her supper clubs. Similarly, Bandey and Hafeez say a restaurant is not a priority at the moment; they are currently working on a cookbook to make Kashmiri cuisine more accessible to home cooks.

These talented chefs illuminate how restaurants may not necessarily be the next step or even the ultimate endgame for successful supper clubs. In an industry where only 17 percent of chef jobs in the UK are held by women and the gender gap in attracting investment and financing is stark, immigrant women chefs face an even greater challenge in capturing investor interest and creating a sustained demand for under-the-radar regional fare that remains unfamiliar to many. Engaging with diners through intimate supper club settings and broadening the narrative around under-documented food cultures is not necessarily the means to an end, but is in itself a worthwhile journey.

“I enjoy creating an intimate experience around food and socio-political topics,” Siddiqui says. “I want my supper clubs to be spaces where people can have constructive conversations about issues that impact immigrant communities.”

Rida Bilgrami is a food writer based in London. Ming Tang-Evans is a London-based photographer whose work spans food, interiors, and travel, with interesting stops in-between.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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