Chef Asma Khan and her team of women keep Darjeeling Express on track

Chef Asma Khan and her team of women keep Darjeeling Express on track

Award-winning British Indian Chef Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express, now based at the central London location of Covent Garden, is gearing up to welcome food enthusiasts back to its homely touch as England gradually emerges from lockdown.

In this latest instalment of the Big Bite Series, we take a journey aboard the Darjeeling Express, a concept born out Asma’s commitment to bringing authentic Indian cuisine alive with the help of an all-women team leading the charge. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, as the saying goes, and in keeping with that, Asma’s menus are not overly extravagant but made up of delicious dishes that she herself enjoys cooking and serving.

“We aren’t trying to impress, it’s about flavours and healing people,” she muses.

Little delights like puchkas a.k.a. golgappas/panipuris and the ubiquitous masala chai all add up to an unforgettable dining experience at Darjeeling Express in London. For the moment, the restaurant is making the most of its popular delivery model and remains hopeful about the time when it can open its doors to diners.

Foodie journey

As a law student in India, Asma didn’t follow the expected course to become a solicitor or a barrister. The concept of researching grew on her and she opted to further her discovery of the societal gap.

Her profound interest in law and history brought her to King’s College London, where she pursued a PhD in British Constitutional Law.

“You can’t write a PhD on something unless it really excites you and keeps you up at night. I was very interested in the research,” recalls Asma.

As a result, she was convinced that law was not the path she wanted to travel: “I never saw myself as a practising lawyer.”

Regional distinctions

The cultural integration of Asma’s paternal Rajput heritage and maternal Bengali/Bihari traditions delicately sculpted her understanding of regional cuisines. Having grown up in Calcutta and spending five years in the city of the Nizams – Hyderabad – she understood the subtle distinctions of regional cooking practices.

“This allowed me to appreciate food more,” she reflects.

The split between her rice eating and roti eating ancestry gave Asma the edge to try a range of Indian cuisines and enjoy the minute differences: “I could immediately taste the regional differences in tempering of the dal. My heritage has taught me to keep my dishes rooted to their origins.”

All-women team

Asma credits her dedicated all-women team, a signature of the restaurant, for her success: “Today, I am the face of the women in my kitchen, but I stand on their shoulders. They are the ones who have lifted me to where I am. Many of them, never imagining a time where they could be financially free.”

As a result, Darjeeling Express isn’t merely a business for Asma. She regards it as her political project for women.

“We are not in this to make money nor for the fame. We are here to make a political point that you need to see us, acknowledge us and respect us.”

Asma, therefore, is on a mission to give a voice to the women who have not felt empowered in the past. She expresses herself as the face of every woman whose cooking has gone unappreciated.

“I am the face of every woman who served the family first and ate last.”

Male vs female

Against that backdrop, Asma also questions the apparent gender bias in the culinary field. “How is it that in every South Asian kitchen we go to it is a woman cooking but every South Asian origin restaurant we go to a man is cooking?”

She is disappointed that women are often not celebrated as professional and sophisticated cooks: “We are seen as unskilled whereas the men are seen as magicians who recreate dishes.”

At Darjeeling Express, the women in her team have come a long way from being just service providers, in keeping with her desire to champion them.

She reflects: “We represent something deeper than just food. Not just my generation, I will speak for the women in their graves, our nanis and dadis (grandmothers).

“We took their food for granted and never thanked them.”

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Love and patience

While building her team, Asma was on the lookout for women who cooked like her: without undergoing formal training at culinary school, learned from their mothers and grandmothers through observation and those who wouldn’t ask her about strict measurements and scales.

This hunt ended with Asma gathering a group of talented housewives who perfectly met her kitchen’s criteria. They understood instructions the way her mother had instructed her, ‘thoda sa this and thoda sa that’ (a little bit of this and a little bit of that).

Asma explains: “What made us a team is that they could understand what I was doing. Followed my non-verbal directions. I wasn’t explaining anything to them. They just watched and they did it.”

United by their technique of cooking, that of every Indian mother and grandmother who has created loving feasts for their household, Asma feels her kitchen uses patience and love as the secret ingredients in their popular dishes.

Coping with lockdown

The restaurateur chose a more cautious approach to the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme last summer. In her view, the scheme packed in a lot of people in restaurants, adding to the health risks.

“Money is not what keeps me awake at night. My priority was to protect the health of my staff and customers. The time to make money will come when we all are safe,” she notes.

The restaurant, however, has been open for takeaways and deliveries, despite a bit of a struggle since their location is far from the residential areas, making deliveries quite expensive.

But the newly-renovated decor allows for a bigger working space to maintain social distancing norms and throughout the pandemic, Darjeeling Express kept its kitchen bustling with concepts such as “Meals for Two” and “nationwide delivery” of its acclaimed biryani.

Asma wasn’t entirely sure about the latter right away: “It seemed like a bizarre idea to pack the biryani in trays, chill it and send it off by post.”

But difficult times opened up new horizons to implement sustainable approaches.

“I have shown confidence in the people I work with. My whole life I have argued that people’s voices should be heard, hence I listened to my GM (general manager) and we tried the nationwide delivery. Now it has become huge.”

Moreover, Asma has realised that you cannot plan too much for the future. “I’ll take things for when they come.”

Beyond the restaurant

Food for Asma represents, quite simply, ‘Amu ke haath ka maza’ or the magic of her mum’s cooking and her new cookbook ‘Amu’ is dedicated to her mother. It runs through the five decades of her life: her childhood dishes, dishes that she learned to cook and her journey as the ‘Amu’ herself of two British-born children.

“Writing cookbooks are difficult sometimes because of verbal recipes but I’m getting there,” says Asma, whose debut cookbook ‘Asma’s Indian Kitchen’ won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award in the UK category for Indian cuisine.

As the first British chef to star in the Netflix series ‘Chef’s Table’, Asma’s episode also made it into the nominations for the prestigious Emmy Awards.

Start small

And, her message for aspiring chefs: start small and avoid being over-ambitious.

She shares: “I think it is important that you see not just women but see men as your ally. Men who will support and stand by you. This is not an us and them. My greatest allies are from all kinds of backgrounds. This is not about race, colour or gender.

“When people around are trying to help you and give you advice, try to educate yourself and learn things. Be less rigid in what you do and take the risk.

“Look beyond yourself, beyond your own ambition and money.”

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