The gaajar ka halwa came in a tiny orange dome, grooved on all sides from
the mould it was made on, like some architectural detail from a Mughal tomb, inlaid with slivers of pistachio. You’ll have to forgive my flights of poetry, but Asma Khan’s food demands—and provokes—nothing less. Food, for Asma, is not simply about the ingredients or the process of cooking, nor even about how a dish is served. Food is life. It is love. It is the soil upon which we stand and to which we will ourselves return. It is politics and friendship and solidarity. It is the great leveller and the great elevator.
Asma recalls the time she arrived in the UK 28 years ago. “I came in January,” she recalls. “I felt like a tree in winter: stripped of everything that was soft and creative. People say that hell is fire, but they’re wrong: hell is cold and ice. I stood there next to those bare trees thinking, I will never have happiness again.” Her mother took matters into her hands when Asma went back to Kolkata for a visit. The cure for homesickness was good home-cooked food, she declared, and she set about teaching Asma how to cook.
“I didn’t know how to cook, but I’d always hang around the kitchen, and it was instinctive,” she says as we sip tea. For her, cooking was like music. “I learnt the rhythms, the beat—I felt it here,” she says, tapping her heart. For Asma, music is not the food of love: food is love’s music, a way to show someone you care.
When she returned to London, she gave up a promising career in law, and began to cook in earnest. With the help of a few friends, she started hosting
supper clubs at home, and her reputation soon spread. In 2017, she and her
small team—all women, none of them professionally trained cooks—opened a restaurant in the heart of London’s Soho. Darjeeling Express is now one of London’s most sought-after restaurants. A cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen, came out last year, and this year, she became the first Indian woman to feature on Netflix’s Chef ’s Table series.
Descending from the Lalkhani Rajputs of Rajasthan, her father’s side, and from the Nawab of Jalpaiguri on her mother’s, and having grown up in Kolkata and Hyderabad, Asma’s menu reflects the rich diversity of Indian culture—from the Hyderabadi dishes like haleem and baghare baigan, to Bihari anday ka halwa, and aloo dum and phuchkas, loved by Bengalis the world over. The Tangra Chilli Garlic Prawns she served me were tangy, sweet, hot, juicy and cooked to perfection. I closed my eyes and was instantly back in Kolkata. “I put these first on our menu because I wanted to honour the Chinese immigrants who came to Kolkata. They were treated horribly because they ate beef and pork. When Indians complain about how we are treated in the West, I get so angry. It bothers me, this culture of disliking people because of what they eat.”
There is a burst of laughter from the kitchen as one of the women working there cracks a joke. “There’s no tension in my kitchen, no one’s shouting. That’s why our food is magical. It’s not work: it’s liberation!” she says. The grandstanding of the celebrity chef is not for Asma: she works, lives and succeeds as part of a team. “How can I take credit for a dish when that plate has been touched by five sets of hands? The first is the one who washed the plate. There are no divisions in my kitchen. Or in my restaurant,” she adds. This ethos informs every part of the business. She tells me with pride that their landlord had to refund their service charge for rubbish collection and disposal, because the restaurant generated so little. Only organic vegetables are used, and as locally sourced as possible. She substitutes English vegetables with Indian ones, and the menu changes to reflect the season.
I left Darjeeling Express feeling, like so many others, not only like I had been taken on a journey, but that I had come home: all my senses nourished, my heart as well as my belly, full.
India Today, April 2019