Asma Khan

6th July 2017

Interview: Sudi Pigott
Photographs: Dan Dennison

6th July 2017

Interview: Sudi Pigott
Photographs: Dan Dennison

It is hard to imagine that Asma Khan, the gregarious and formidably intelligent force behind the supper club Darjeeling Express, who opened her first restaurant in Soho last month, couldn’t even boil an egg when she moved to the UK in 1991. Frustrated, she returned to India a couple of years later to learn about her royal Mughal culinary heritage from her family and those who cooked for her as a child. Equally important was learning about simpler, everyday dishes such as dal and rice with beetroot chop. “I like real food that Indians eat at home, as cooked by mums and aunts – not stuff drowning in cream and overwhelmed with nut garnishes.”

Asma is sitting cross-legged on an exquisite Iranian carpet at her apartment in South Kensington. Art, furniture and photographs of her former fortress home in Calcutta surround her as she explains, with lively and witty digressions, her journey from studying law to opening her first restaurant aged 47. Incredibly knowledgeable about food, she has the kind of warm, intensely curious and enthusiastic personality that can entice a recipe out of even the proudest pakora maker.

Moving into the homely kitchen, Asma apologises for the clutter, not helped by the fact that her son is in the middle of exam revision. She’s making a dish for lunch that most Calcutta families would enjoy several times a week, a mutton keema, subtly aromatic and hugely comforting. At home, Asma always cooks barefoot: “I like to feel rooted, though I know it’s completely frowned on by health and safety.”

The keema is served with rice flavoured with cassia bark, far more fragrant than cinnamon, with all the grains beautifully fluffy and distinct, and finished with crispy onion. To accompany the keema, there is a refreshing cucumber, chilli and mint raita made with hung yogurt. Asma likes to substitute English for Indian vegetables – “I know how I feel when I am jet-lagged, so imagine the fatigue on a vegetable!” – and today she serves up asparagus sautéed with chilli. We drink water during the meal and finish with mugs of chai masala that has been brewing since the morning.

Continued below...

What first brought you to the UK?

I moved here in 1991 after I got married, first to Cambridge, then London. My husband is an economics lecturer and we met in India where I was working as a journalist.

What did you think of the food when you first arrived?

I thought it was terrible. I was appalled. For the first two years, because I couldn’t cook, I ate only salad and my husband’s one dish, a terrible chicken curry. I read second-hand cookery books by authors like Elizabeth David, wistfully, just for the pictures. My husband, a committed Marxist, didn’t relate to my need to cook and eat well. It felt like life was not worth living. I was tempted to leave and return to India, but there was too much shame in that.

So what did you do?

I travelled back to India in 1993 to spend time in the kitchens of my parents and extended family. In a matter of months I’d mastered recipes from the royal Mughal traditions that have been in my family for four generations. Back in the UK, I started out by cooking for fellow Asian students I invited to my home in Cambridge – it was a way to make friends. Once I could cook, Cambridge came to life for me.

What were the challenges?

Indian home cooks are not used to sharing recipes; there was fierce rivalry among my aunts, but I think they panicked and thought I was going to leave my marriage so they generously gave me their recipes, which were rarely written down. I still don’t write recipes out. I tend to keep them in my head and hear the voices of the people who taught me, as if I’m remembering stories. I cook instinctively by touch and feel, not like a chef.

I still don’t write recipes out. I tend to keep them in my head and hear the voices of the people who taught me, as if I’m remembering stories. I cook instinctively by touch and feel, not like a chef

You come from a royal Indian lineage and grew up in a palace. What was your kitchen like at home?

We had 20 cooks in the kitchen, but most unusually my mother also cooked and ran a hospitality business. It was bizarre. At Christmas we would have live turkeys tied to the dining-room chairs – we couldn’t risk letting them out as they would get stolen. I didn’t cook when I lived at home. I was interested in food, yet only observed.

The royal Mughal cuisine I’ve inherited is very distinctive and increasingly rare. These recipes are only cooked in a few kitchens by the older chefs so they are in danger of dying out, as the younger chefs don’t have enough time to learn and cook such meticulous techniques. I like to be a custodian of this palatial cuisine, though it is certainly not the sole background of my dishes. I cook Calcutta street foods too, such as Bengali puchkas or pani puri [hollow puri, or deep-fried unleavened bread, filled with yoghurt, spices and tamarind water] as well as the dishes families eat at home.

How did you begin cooking for a living?

The day I finished my PhD in British constitutional law, I registered Darjeeling Express online. I did the PhD because I loved the subject I was researching, but I was never going to practice: I just wanted to cook. Initially, I cooked a lot for my friends and neighbours in London, who are mainly French, doing weddings and baptisms.

How did the supper clubs come about?

I love having people in my home and feeding them and I wanted to reach a wider audience. I think people can feel the care and warmth I put into my cooking. It is food from the heart. Often guests at the supper club would cry and say that they hadn’t tasted food like this since their mother cooked for them. Though it got to the point when both my husband and son, Aziz, didn’t want me bringing people to the home so much.

Then I had the residency at The Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho where I got a brilliant review from Fay Maschler [in the Evening Standard], which gave me the confidence that I’d made the right decision to become a cook.

It’s interesting that your staff at the new restaurant are all women.

Yes I made a conscious decision to only have women, from the porters to the cooks. I wanted to really elevate the role of the home cook. The women all come from different social and religious backgrounds and many have no formal training to speak of, yet understand spicing and prep exquisitely. Their training is solely from their mothers and grandmothers. Many of them helped me settle when I first came to London. One of my cooks is Jewish-Australian, several are Hindi. Some are former nannies I’ve met through my son’s school and some are housewives who have come over from India recently and are missing home, so this helps them acclimatise gently.

Where does the name Darjeeling Express come from?

It comes from a trip I remember taking with my father. We took a train up into the mountains of Bengal and while looking out over the horizon, he told me “Asma, we are free here.” As a young girl, I felt restricted in what I could do, but 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 choose, so I chose to cook.

What’s a usual day when you’re not at work?

My whole day is marked out by food – I shop and cook every day. For breakfast. I always make paratha or roti and eggs. We will usually have a leftover vegetable too, most often masala potatoes which I think taste better the next day. I do like breakfast when I am alone and can think. I listen to a lot of sufi music with great beats and rhythms.

For breakfast. I always make paratha or roti and eggs. We will usually have a leftover vegetable too, most often masala potatoes which I think taste better the next day. I do like breakfast when I am alone and can think. I listen to a lot of sufi music

Do you have tea or coffee?

I make masala chai every morning with Assam tea and add the spices – black pepper, cinnamon – and cook them with milk for about an hour. I will drink this throughout the day, I love its subtle fragrance, it is the tea of the streets. I am really proud that at the restaurant we will serve masala chai in kullar, special unglazed terracotta cups made especially for chai by an Indian potter friend of mine, Maham Anjum.

What about lunch and dinner?

Lunch is usually leftovers from the night before, whatever I can find in the fridge. For dinner, my husband prefers Indian food but my son is not so keen, so I’ll make him Chinese food or pasta.

What is your favourite food to cook?

I love to make biryani. It is a palace food and very difficult to cook. I will serve lamb dum biryani1 at the restaurant, though only on Sunday. It is impossible to really make it properly for fewer than 60 people. I hate to say it but a lot of restaurants fake it by simply assembling together curry, rice and dough. It takes a good eight hours for the aromas to properly be assimilated.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, what would it be?

It would be the meal that my mother fed me as a bride the night before my wedding. I’d had my hands hennaed and it wasn’t dry, so I couldn’t eat with my own hands. I can’t remember any other time that she fed me, though she must have done when I was small. Being fed by hand by my mother at the age of 21 was so emotional. I wept throughout the meal. It was also the last time I ate in my family home. All the servants who had cooked for me all their life came out to watch. We had two kinds of potatoes, as I love potatoes, and a wholemeal bread with chopped onions and chilli cooked on the tawa, plus mutton cooked with whole spices, cinnamon, cardamom, and a vinegar made with a berry unique to my area called jamun. I will never forget this.

How the rice is prepared is really important. It should be washed as gently as massaging a child’s hair, just flipped around

What kind of dishes and advice came directly from your mother?

I remember simple dishes like chicken rezala, which is rather like a Persian stew. It has fresh rather than preserved lemons and ground coriander so is very fragrant, mild and fresh. We add green chillies and mint at the end. It is a very popular dish among Muslims in Calcutta. All kinds of pulao rice tempered with spice are a favourite too. We cook it with ghee rather than stock. How the rice is prepared is really important. It should be washed as gently as massaging a child’s hair, just flipped around. If it is washed under fast running water it will break the rice tips, and the rice will become starchy as it cooks.
My mother would always say, do not rush the food, good people will wait. She taught me that people can leave a table feeling better not just because of what they’ve eaten, but how it was been cooked with care and how it is served. It is not simply about feeding, but nourishing the soul.

What do you generally not like about Indian restaurants?

I know it sounds strange but I don’t like the way food is served in most Indian restaurants. I like to cook and bring food to every table, that really matters to me. I like to see the face of the person who has cooked and thank them. Then it makes sense and has soul. I especially like it when they sit down and eat some food with me, Sameer Taneja of Talli Joe sometimes does this.

On The Menu

Lunch with Asma Khan
West London, May 2017

To eat:

Keema matter (Mutton mince with peas) »
Rice flavoured with cassia bark
Cucumber, chilli & mint raita
Asparagus sautéed with chilli

To drink:

Water
Chai masala

What do you like most about your home?

Everything here has meaning and much of the furniture is inherited. I can’t just go to Ikea and buy things. The carpets have very similar rich colours to those I remember from my home and all have stories, often about building families2. They are good quality as we like to sit on the carpet a lot when we have dinner. I’m particularly interested in Islamic calligraphy. It is part of my culture. It was forbidden to draw birds and human life and so artists got round it by drawing with lines. I am thrilled with the Islamic arch in the hall: it was inspired by mosques I’d visited in Marrakech and an Algerian designer made it for me.

Is there anything you can’t cook?

I don’t know how to bake. I’m in awe of bakers. I love buying cupcakes in Crumbs and Doilies, now we’re at Kingly Court.

Are there any foods you don’t like to eat?

I don’t like food with a preserved smell like dried prawns or preserved lemons. Nor do I like anything fermented like kimchi. I can’t do funky smells. If we smelled anything like that in Calcutta, we’d be very wary. I like my food to breathe!

Do you have a sweet tooth?

Yes, definitely. Indian desserts can be very sweet and rich. I make several traditional ones and cook them in terracotta pots to give them more earthy flavours. One of my favourites is creamy rich kheer made with milk and rice and lots of spices and saffron. I also like wild Hunza apricots from Hyderabad served with thick cream.

Share a cooking tip.

In case you end up adding too much salt to any dish, add a piece of raw peeled potato to the dish and let it cook for a bit. The potato will absorb the excess salt.

For more about Darjeeling Express, go to www.darjeeling-express.com

Follow Darjeeling Express: Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

  1. Layers of rice, mutton, potatoes, saffron and spices covered with a dough seal and cooked for at least eight hours
  2. “Our logo comes from the carpet I am sitting on right now,” says Asma. “It is the mango that represents the fruit of life – the ripeness of life.”

Posted 6th July 2017

In Interviews

 

Interview: Sudi Pigott
Photographs: Dan Dennison

More Interviews

Rory O’Connell – The co-founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School whips up an effortless three-course lunch, defends the use of recipes, and recalls how his mother made the best plum pudding bar none

Shaul Ben-Aderet – The Blue Rooster chef cooks green shakshuka for lunch, recalls childhood visits to the market with his grandmother, and describes his very favourite meal of the day

Rosamund Young – The farmer and author makes roast beef and a mulberry flan for lunch, reflects on her desire for self-sufficiency and takes us to meet her famous herd of cows

Tom Jaine – The food writer and publisher assembles lunch at his Devon smallholding, recalls his upbringing at a revolutionary restaurant and admits to his 12-a-day instant coffee habit