On a Sunday this summer, we had the honour to eat at the Darjeeling Express restaurant. We joined the Supper Club lunch and ate the most delicious biryani.
Asma Khan, the chef and owner, is one of my greatest idols. She is a charming and clever woman that has rewritten her own story and the one of many others. I couldn’t wait to meet her in person.
The first time I found out about Asma was on a Time Out article. The article described her all-women kitchen and the philosophy of her home-style food cooked from family recipes. At that time, I recently moved to London, I couldn’t afford to go to her restaurant, but I promised myself I’d go one day.
Five years later and a pandemic in the making, I finally managed to visit her and the Darjeeling Express.
As soon as you enter her new restaurant in Covent Garden, Asma and the team make you feel welcomed and loved.
The terracotta pink room is spacious and filled with luscious plants, candles in golden jars, and framed photos. Each photo tells Asma’s story, and you immediately feel part of something special.
The supper club starts with Bihari Phulki, lentil fritters served with spicy chilli and tamarind chutney. ‘The food of the hungry’ as she says. Your stomach starts singing at the first bite, you immediately get comfy and ready for all the rich flavours to come.
Here is when Asma officially welcomes all her guests and invites everyone to listen to the story of her life.
Asma, from second daughter to great entrepreneur
Asma was born the second daughter of a royal Indian family. Second daughters are a family stigma in India and their birthday is mourned.
She moved to the UK with her husband in 1991. Despite always observing her mother in the kitchen, she realised that she couldn’t even boil an egg once she moved abroad. Something I so relate with! She felt a void inside her, isolated in a completely different world, far away from her family.
She decided to visit back home. She slowly found herself again in the kitchen learning the secrets of the royal Mughlai dishes of her childhood.
She came back to the UK and completed a Ph.D. in Law. She now made a banging chai tea and shared it with her new friends, the nannies and housewives she met at her children’s school.
Food was still the only thing that spoke to her heart. Asma started to host secret dinner parties, the first supper clubs, at her home. She says with a smile ‘I always wanted to do something illegal’ (Chef Table Volume 6, Netflix). These dinners quickly became legendary, and she was offered a residency at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. Her friends worked with her – a crew of all women, empowered and freed from the fate of forgotten second daughters and immigrants.
Overcoming adversities and embracing adventures, their restaurant soon flourished. A percentage of all proceeds from the Darjeeling Express is now used to celebrate the birthday of second daughters and support their education.
In 2020, they moved to Covent Garden from Soho. After many months of closure due to the pandemic, the doors of this oasis in central London have now finally reopened.
The Supper Club
Asma says that the supper club brings her back in time. She jokes about replicating a secret restaurant in what is now an actual restaurant. The walls, the tables, and the kitchen might have changed but the people and philosophy are the same: Asma and the team want everyone to feel at home.
She dissects the components of the food, tells the story of the dishes, and above all, celebrates the people behind it.
You can’t praise a cuisine while mocking its culture. You can’t appropriate food while not accepting who is behind it.
I admire Asma for many reasons. One of them is how she leads: she thanks every single person that contributed to the meal, from her ancestors and parents to the chefs and waiters.
While I think that it can’t get any better than this, they bring the biryani to the room. They break the dough sealing the huge hot pot. The lid is lifted and a cloud of saffron fills the room. I’m in a spiced heaven. They mix the layers and serve it with pride.
The vegetarian version has nothing to envy to the meaty one – it has the same magic layers of rice, potatoes, apricots, prunes, milk, cardamom, and saffron.
The portions are enormous, and I am so happy! They even bring you boxes for the biryani if you are too full – nothing goes to waste and the experience continues at home.
They then serve the desserts and at this point, I feel so emotional. One of the desserts is Gajjar ka Halwa, carrot halwa, my absolute favourite.
She says she decided to feature it in her menu for political reasons. Halwa with winter carrots can be classified as cheap. This is without considering the labour behind it. Women work in the kitchen all night to prepare the dish. But often women are overlooked. Asma wants to change this, shatter old conventions, and celebrate who is forgotten.
If you now listen carefully, you’ll hear the dessert spoons clashing against the terracotta pots. They are like beach pebbles moved by the ocean.
I close my eyes and get lost in space and time. Asma’s food is far away from my Italian roots. And yet, this meal reminds me of home. I feel like a child again, close to my parents and aunties. It feels good after having been far away for so long. Asma’s food feels like a hug from a loving family.