Asma Khan: London’s Darjeeling Express

Sunetra Senior Monday 09th May 2016 11:11 EDT

It is fitting that chef, Asma, decided to name her one-of-a-kind, culinary franchise, The Darjeeling Express. Though she hopes to arrive at a permanent location in the future, her temporary pop-up service has already earned her 8th place in the Evening Standard’s top 15 restaurants of 2015, and together with the many specially themed supper clubs she enjoys hosting, her authentic and time-honoured Indian cuisine has erupted on social media to the point where Klout – a statistics-gathering site that keeps tabs on the people who have the most influence over certain topics – ranked her third in the world for Indian gastronomy. It seems that the magic in Asma’s dishes emanates from the very transience of her kitchens. As we talked more with the gushing restaurateur, we found that this was not so far off from the truth: “from the porters to the cooks,” she told us “my staff are all women, who come from different class backgrounds. They are also not necessarily qualified in the official way. Some have no formal training to speak of, but can cook exquisitely. In fact, one of my proudest accomplishments with Darjeeling Express is proving how valuable a home cook can be. It is a gendered occupation, but not a skill to be looked down upon.” Asma’s warmth towards her team naturally extends to the customer: “I really believe there is a power and place with good, regional cooking. I do not believe in treating the customer as if they’re on a carousel: I don’t rush them to leave the table; all my dishes are inherited family recipes that I prepare with care, and people can feel that. Regulars call me auntie because they feel that they’re at home: the heart recognises the food, cooked with love. It’s very distinctive. I have a customer-base comprised of different ethnicities - Italians, Japanese, Pakistani, French – and I’ve been told, “if my mum did cook Indian, it’d probably be like this. This also provides a social platform where people can feel relaxed about discussing their interests, India, film, politics, where they came from, how they grew up.” Though Asma’s Darjeeling Express provides local, Indian cooking then, it is clear that the experience one takes away with them is truly cosmopolitan.

What is the story behind Darjeeling Express?

I am a lawyer by training, and have always loved food. I first wanted to finish my PhD in British Constitutional Law before turning to the food business.  In fact, the on same day I discovered I had passed my viva, I went online and registered the business. I had been cooking for a long time before that, raising money for different charities. For example, the charity ‘Find Your Feet’, which among other initiatives, helps poor women in rural areas to come together and talk about their joint experience in poverty, helping foster a sense of emotional community support. The name Darjeeling Express itself came of a trip I remember taking with my father. The train goes up into the mountains of Bengal, and while looking out over the horizon, he told me “Asma, we are free here.”  I felt so in control of my destiny. Years later, making the decision about whether or not to go into cooking, this thought surfaced within me. I did have a good, legal education but I had the right to choice: I chose to cook.

You come from a royal Indian lineage: does this influence your dishes?

Yes, I have inherited the cuisine of Mogul Kolkata, which is very specialist food. I did grow up eating distinctively royal cuisine where other people may not have had the opportunity, but this is not solely the background of my dishes. They represent the real food of India, and this is not limited to royal influence. I cook the regional street foods too e.g. Puchkas: what families at home. Darjeeling Express is primarily about authenticity. The Mogul influence is important to me because these recipes were cooked in few kitchens, where they are now dying out. This is due to, among other factors, the younger generation not having enough time to cook and learn the meticulous practice of their ancestors. When I go back to Kolkata, I’ll find the same  older generation chefs are cooking the palatial cuisine. They’re custodians of a dying cuisine.

 What grabs you most about cooking?

The concept of community and caring: I enjoy working with my team and then coming out to talk with the customer. I’ll always bring the dishes out myself and explain to the customer what they are eating. In my kitchen there are people who have just come over from India wanting to help out because they miss home. It’s the same for the customer eating the food: the whole experience reminds them of another time. What it felt like as a child to be looked after. There was one girl who said that after dinner, she waited until daylight to call her mother just to thank her for her cooking. Forget feeding your stomach, good food feeds your soul.

You throw themed supper clubs: which has been your most successful?

I have an evening called ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ where I cook the city cuisine of Hyderabad – such as Haleem - and of Kolkata - such as the fish and prawn Malai curry alongside each other, and that is very popular. It shows how food can vary from city to city and provides a great social platform for bringing people together.

Finally, what are you plans for Darjeeling Express in the immediate future?

From 11th June – 7th July, I’ll be running a pop-up on Druid Street, that’s never been done before in London. I’ll be serving the food of Ramadan, specifically catered for fasting: for example, the special bhajis. I’ll also be continuing on with supper clubs, which you can find listed on my website.

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