Darjeeling Express is a name that is very popular in my household for invoking nostalgia of amazing food. Asma’s Darjeeling Express journey, if you liken it to that of a train, started when Asma Khan moved to the UK in 1991, married but unable to cook. Not even able to boil an egg! She pretty much lived on salad and her husband’s chicken curry for the first 2 years and then knew that this could not go on and she had to make some drastic changes.
In 1993, she made the decision to travel back home to India, to spend time in the kitchens of her ancestral home, where she learned how to cook dishes she had grown up with, and gathered recipes handed down over the generations, of traditional and royal Nawabi/Mughal cuisine.
She then started cooking back in the UK, sharing these dishes with diners, starting first through supper clubs, hosted at her home, and then various other venues, and over time she won many hearts over her food, including even those of many food critics! She then had a pop up in Soho, which proved very popular, and now the train is embarking on its ultimate leg of the fantastic journey – a restaurant!
I still remember the first time I tried Asma Khan’s food at The Sun and 13 Cantons, where she had residency in the heart of soho as a pop up for a limited time. At the time I had heard so much about Asma Khan’s supper clubs and food and so when I heard she had a pop up in Soho I knew I had to book, and go and experience the food for myself.
The food was of course incredible and we popped in for puchkas and masala tea on more than one occasion and it was always the chats we had with Asma, the warmth and the hospitality she bestowed upon us and the decadent home cooked style food that kept us coming back.
The next time I saw Asma was when she had a pop up at Druid Street Market, where she and her team were serving Puchkas, Haleem, Papri Chaat, just to name a few amazing dishes, and what was incredible was that all profits went to help Syrian Refugees as part of Action Against Hunger. This is Asma’s big and honest heart – I really admire how hard she works to give back to the world.
Her final Biryani Supper Club was hosted at the gorgeous Cinnamon Club and it was fantastic. Not only did I make fabulous new friends at our table, but the food was divine! She really made everyone feel at home and fed us amazing dishes whilst we all chatted away getting to know each other.
Now I am absolutely excited that this wonderful woman and her all women team, all of which are housewives, have a permanent residency in a sparkly new restaurant on the top floor of Kingly Court on Carnaby Street. They give Wonder Woman a run for her money.
The food served pays homage to Asma’s royal mughal ancestry as well as reminiscent of food popularly found in Calcutta. This is where Asma grew up and you can see photos of her ancestral home adorning the walls of the restaurant. All the dishes are exactly how they would be served. None have been modified or turned into fine dining pieces of art. Rustic, homely and really hit the spot.
The decor is bright, light and gorgeous with plants garnishing the ceilings, and Kullars, a traditional Indian Chai Cup, embellishing the walls. The sound track playing in the restaurant on the opening night was old school bollywood and the ambience was delightful. There is an open plan kitchen so you can see the charming ladies smiling and cooking away, and you just know that what you are about to be served will be immense food.
I was so honoured to visit this gorgeous space on the Friends and Family Opening night on the 22 June 2017 and we got to try some of the dishes that will be served on the menu. I had tried several before during Asma’s various events or pop ups, but sitting in her restaurant was absolutely wonderful and I could not be more proud of her success.
Asma loves feeding people so it was absolutely no surprise that she was spoiling us with 6 different starters, 2 mains and various side dishes and of course dessert!
First to arrive from the starters were Lamb Samosas, which were stuffed with minced lean lamb, chopped red onions and chopped coriander leaves. Morsels of heaven! We had a choice of gorgeous chutneys and dips to eat them with and there were smiles all around the restaurant.
Next up was Papri Chaat, which is Spiced potato and black chickpeas served on a bed of crisp papri and dressed with tangy tamarind chutney, garnished with sev and spinkles of chopped coriander. Immense!
Puchkas, or Paani Puris, depending on which part of India you originate from, are one of the most fun dishes to eat! These are Wheat & Semolina shells filled with spiced black chickpeas, potatoes and tamarind water. You have to pour the tamarind water into the shell and eat it all in one go!
Tangra Chilli Garlic Prawns were so decadent. The word Tangra means Chinatown and Calcutta is the only city in India which has a Chinatown. As a nod to this, the flavours of this starter are Indo-Chinese and remarkable.
Spinach Pakoras, crispy in texture, and heavenly in taste were a fantastic treat. These are
Chickpea flour fritters made with “Woolwich Mustard Greens”, which are traditional Nepali spinach grown by retired Gurkha army personnel in Woolwich Arsenal. It is all these thoughtful touches which make me love Asma’s food that extra bit more.
Mutton Shikampuri Kabab were melt in your mouth smile invoking mutton cakes. Spiced delicately and aromatically, and stuffed with a thin layer of hung yogurt and chopped mint leaves. An absolute must order with the accompanying chutney, which is insanely good.
We were so stuffed from the starters but so excited about the mains! The two dishes we tried were Methi Chicken, and Prawn Malaikari.
Now I am addicted to Methi (Fenugreek) and so was most intrigued by this dish, which were Boneless thighs cooked with dried fenugreek leaves and a tomato gravy. OMG it was so good!
The Prawn Malaikari was a dish I hadn’t tried before and this is a Bengali Speciality whereby spiced tiger prawns are delicately cooked in coconut milk. I loved the coastal flavours of gentle tanginess of this dish.
We were spoilt rotten with the sides we could try and my absolute favourite was the Hyderabadi Tamarind Dal, which was a heavenly bowl of tangy lentils tempered with dried red chillies & curry leaves. The tamarind just gave this Dal dish an amazing lift and I am definitely going to be back for this! It was so good it was almost like having a main. Asma’s portion sizes are so generous.
We ate our mains and Dal with Bulandshahr Rogni Rotis, which are tawa cooked wholemeal breads made with chopped red onions and green chillies.
Rice, served in a pot, was just so lovingly made with each strand of rice perfectly separated and yet so fluffy, delicious and divine.
My favourite ever dish of Asma’s is the Beetroot Chops and I am so glad they are on the menu as a side as they are just ridiculously good. Everyone should try these Bengali spiced croquettes which are made with British beetroots from the Fens and guaranteed to make you want to eat a bucket of them!
Dessert has a dedicated separate stomach and everyone was anticipating the Bhapa Doi – a Bengali steamed yogurt dessert with such excitement and it really did not disappoint at all! There were murmurs of delight heard across the room as everyone ate spoonfuls of it.
The final treat to end the evening with was amazingly brewed and delicately spiced Masala chai served in a Kullar, made by my dear friend Maham for Asma’s restaurant. These are traditional Indian Chai cups and it is so lovely to see Asma introducing her diners to a well loved tradition as well as supporting fellow women entrepreneurs.
This is a restaurant London has long needed – one where you will get home cooked food made with love by incredible housewives, and which will take you on a journey off the (b)eaten track to Calcutta, Asma’s home city, and enable you to share her memories through food and experience it for yourself. There will be no fancy food art, no modified dishes – just simple and traditional dishes, true to their recipes and cooked with love.
So much so that Asma has recently been featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Tables – what an amazing achievement!
Darjeeling Express is located on the Top Floor, Kingly Court, Carnaby,
London W1B 5PW
Telephone – 0207 287 2828