Asma Said Khan’s exciting adventure with Darjeeling Express began three years ago. Starting as a supperclub that she held at her house, the monthly occasion became so busy that she sought a new home in Central London for her baby, so that anyone and everyone could pop in whenever they wanted. The new venue proved to be a successful move, with the Soho home of The Sun and Thirteen Cantons picking up an increasing number of guests through word of mouth.
After being treated to a superb meal of Puchkas and Khosa Mangsho (Bengali Goat Curry), with compliments of Nimbu Paani and Mango Lassi (made with fresh mangoes!), I took a breather and spoke to the warm, affable Asma to find out the secrets behind creating her delicious dishes and how her methods of running a kitchen are miles away from the British norm. Yet oh so successful.
The menu has choices with a succinct influence of styles from Hyderabad and Calcutta. How did that come about?
Family, really. I have connections in Lucknow, Calcutta, Hyderabad. Also, being Indian-Muslim, there is obviously going to be some Mughlai influences. India has such a massive depth of food. It’s not just your generic Baltis and your Karahis. Every dish of ours has a name and has a heritage. Every spice is separate and everything tastes distinct.
As a regular visitor to the motherland, even I’ve not come across some of the dishes on your menu around India.
India has changed so much. Because rents are going up, all of the old stalls that would sell old cuisine like rezala, parathas, kebabs, biryanis are all closing down. These places like Old Delhi and Old Calcutta – once they’re shut, the old recipes are gone forever. They haven’t handed down the recipes to anyone. Their kids are moving on – everyone wants to be in a call centre, nobody wants to be a cook! There used to be a lot of pride and dignity in being the family cook. This is no longer the case. Those recipes will go to their graves.
How did you learn how to cook?
My mother is an amazing cook and she passed a lot of her recipes onto me. But then I began to ask our chefs for recipes. They were entertained by the idea that I was going to try and make their dishes and thought I was just trying to pass my time in London, but once I began cooking, I was absolutely fascinated and hooked. I feel like a custodian of all of these old family recipes. People watch what they make on Masterchef, but it’s not real Indian food what they show.
The disadvantage for me, is that all of these recipes have been passed down to me orally – I have no written recipes. When I write a cookbook, it’s going to be very painful. I usually cook barefoot and my cooking is very intuitive – I don’t have a weighing scale or a measuring jug in my kitchen. I just add a pinch of this and a pinch of that – “Does it taste right? No, let’s add more.” It’s a very old-fashioned way of cooking. Nowadays everyone gets their recipes from TV or the internet, which is also a great way to learn. But I cook the food of undivided India.
Without recipes, how do you teach your kitchen staff?
This is why my entire staff are all home cooks – they’ve never worked in professional kitchens. The only instructions I give them are “Does the colour look right? Does it taste right? Does the masala feel okay?” If I was to give these instructions to a professionally-trained chef, he’d get a heart attack! But my staff understands me as this is how they were taught cooking.
Most of the cooks that I learnt from were illiterate so they had no way to write their recipes. One of the men who taught me had a cataract and was almost totally blind taught me by images, like saying that the onions need to look like pearls, then you add something. I’d grind cumin and he’d advise what shade it should be. He’d describe how something should smell when ready, and would make you link it to a memory with a similar feeling. Recipes were described in the way of stories rather than prescriptive instructions. They take you on a journey, and you come out learning a recipe. And I have never forgotten any of the dishes I was taught. You may forget recipes, but you don’t forget stories. I feel very lucky that I got taught this way.
With this method of teaching, isn’t there a risk that the same dish by different chefs may taste completely different, given their subjective thought on smell and colour?
This is a disadvantage. I know that when I open a restaurant, I’ll need a team who can make the dishes just like I do. But I’m sure I can find people who will get it, learn where I’m coming from and stand by me, the same way that I was taught by chefs before me. You just need to have a passion, the desire to learn and a respect for spices. Spices have to be brought to life. Each spice has an individual effect that they bring to a dish. You don’t just bung them all together. And for God’s sake, never use a masala mix or paste. Each spice stands on its own. Layer them, and dishes can come alive.
What was your trajectory before bringing Darjeeling Express to The Sun and 13 Cantons?
I moved to the country in 1991 and worked as a lawyer. I had two kids and finished a PhD. I’ve never been a professional chef or worked as a chef anywhere. To some extent, that explains why my kitchen is quite chaotic! We listen to a lot of music. There’s a lot of singing, clapping and dancing in the kitchen. Sometimes, the singing can get frustrating as you can’t hear what anyone is saying, but it’s a very relaxed atmosphere. The kitchen may lack professionalism, but the food is cooked with love. And people can taste that difference immediately.
Cooking isn’t a chore for us. We are constantly changing the menu as we don’t want to get bored cooking the same thing. This really helps to keep that joy of cooking. Once you have a management that says “You have to cook this like this”, it takes that joy away.
We don’t have as many options on the menu as other restaurants, but I just can’t imagine having twenty things on the menu! I cook four things, and when the food finishes, it finishes. I don’t freeze things and keep them for another day. It’s quality not quantity. And the menu is always changing.
I try and keep the menu filled with seasonal goods, so we’re currently selling fresh mango lassi, and utilizing British beetroot and courgettes. Last month was asparagus season, so I made asparagus korma. Like I’d cook chicken, I just used asparagus. Too much food these days have big carbon footprints as so much is flown in, so I try and keep things that can be sourced from British farms.
Do you also source your own meat?
Yes. I’m quite particular. I buy my own meat and butcher it myself. I want it to be cut in a certain way. A lot of my meat products are cooked on the bone, as I feel that’s where the flavor is. But many people don’t like it prepared this way, so I cut it in a way that the meat is boneless but the dish will still contain bones. I can only do this if I butcher it myself. This is actually the bit of my cooking I hate. I wish I could have a butcher who could cut the meat the way that I want it. But it would just take too long.
When I open a restaurant, obviously I’ll need to be more practical. But at the moment, as it has my name on it, I want to know how fresh it is, and I want to know my guest is getting the best meal I can serve.
Darjeeling Express currently holds residence at a pub in the centre of Soho. In order to cater towards Muslim customers, you serve halal meat. Do you find that they sometimes might find the venue of a pub off-putting as a drinking establishment?
Not at all. The people who run the bar were actually pleasantly surprised, saying they’d never had so many people wearing hijabs in the entire history of the pub being open. I love the fact that the pub has a 1930s look to it – it completely goes with the kind of food that I cook – 1930s India! Yes, it’s a pub, but sometimes you should see things with your heart rather than with your eyes.
Whatever your religion or background, food is food. Everyone is welcome here, and this is Soho – a place with a long tradition of being open to everybody. The day I moved into the pub, three homeless guys saw me and shouted “Yeah! The Indians have arrived!” as I’d fed them when I was last here. They ran towards me and helped me carry the dishes. Food is a unifier – it brings all of us together.
Music and food are the two things that can transport you to another place or age. They can take you back to your childhood or to another part of the world. Allow me to take you back to the food of your Indian ancestors at Darjeeling Express.
Asma Khan's Darjeeling Express is currently in residence at the Sun & 13 Cantons pub in Soho. Bookings and more details can be found at Darjeeling-express.com.