It’s not often that I meet someone who can out-talk me but Asma Khan is that woman. Out for dinner with a former litigator now baker extraordinaire, our destination was the gloriously-named Soho pub The Sun and Thirteen Cantons, where the aforesaid Asma is hosting a pop-up restaurant, as a sort of showcase precursor to opening up a permanent version.
I’d heard about Asma through my foodie contacts and everyone spoke really highly of her supperclub and I was sorry I’d missed it. If you don’t know what a supperclub is, I suggest you Google it. We have passed peak supperclub now, I believe, but there are still a few worth checking out, for the more adventurous diners amongst you.
We got to chatting with the owner, Asma, and she mentioned that she was paid the same as the kitchen staff and that some of the profit from the restaurant goes to charitable causes in Darjeeling. Not entirely the result of wine, my companion and I both started to get wobbly lip.
I asked about the name, which, when I first heard it, made me think that this might be a takeaway. In fact it’s the name of a train, the one Asma used to take as a child: the one taking her from the foothills of the Himalayas into the mountains and the cool air; the one where, at one point, her father allowed her to wear her beloved jeans.
A chance meeting a few years ago with a German hosting a “supperclub summit” led to an invitation to host an Indian supperclub. “It will be great,” he said, “you can do it.” She said yes, without thinking, not even knowing what a supperclub actually was.
And she managed, because she had been cooking for a while, if not in a restaurant scenario. It had started small. Selling samosas to raise money for ambulances in Sarajevo, she was amazed that people wanted to buy her food. Assuming that it was the charity angle, she didn’t quite believe that they were buying the food because they really liked it.
The charitable thread runs throughout Asma’s life and when she made food for the homeless, she suddenly knew what she wanted to do. She had been a lawyer but that didn’t give her what she needed. “I knew I could make people happy with food,” she says. This need to feed and nurture is what underpins her cooking at Darjeeling Express.
And it’s a sisterhood of second daughters, everyone in the restaurant is a second daughter: they have to try harder, she thinks. Some of the women who work with her have never previously left what she calls the Indian Ghetto; it’s been a journey for them too, as they find their independence and a sort of alternative family in a Soho kitchen.
But what about the food? I hear you ask. We’re all fascinated by a journey from law to more, but is it any good? The short answer is yes, very good indeed.
The menu here changes, but in its current form you can find such delights as Beetroot Chop. Not lamb, but beetroot croquettes, deep-fried with a crumb coating served warm with chili and sesame chutney. Also excellent were the Mutton Shikampuri Kebabs, flaky-on-the-outside patties of delicately spiced mutton, served with a yogurt dip.
Puchkas are little mouthfuls of joy that you eat whole; delicate light round wheat and semolina balls, filled with spiced chickpeas and potatoes, into which you pour the tamarind firewater and eat, before you drip the liquid down your front or the thing collapses.
Wonderful crisp cheese samosas were far more delicate than your usual oily, chewy variety and worth ordering to see how they should be and they are nothing like those hard dry ones you get in your lunchtime caff.
The mains were also really well cooked, a Methi chicken being particularly outstanding. Fenugreek (the methi) can sometimes be a little overpowering but here it was perfectly judged. Also good was Prawn Malaikari, a Bengali specialty, prawns cooked in coconut milk. Another Bengali dish, Goat Khosha Mangsho was a dry goat curry with potatoes, the meat rich and powerful. Every main comes with rice. There was no room for dessert, though I did hanker after the stewed Hunza apricots with clotted cream.
The next stage for Asma and her band of merry women is a permanent restaurant, where everyone will be paid the same. It’s a fascinating approach and one different to any model I’ve come across, but if anyone can pull it off, Asma can.
Touching people’s lives, particularly women’s lives. It sounds like a cliché but it’s true.
Get on the Darjeeling Express whilst it’s still there, till the end of March. It isn’t necessary to know the backstory to enjoy the food here – you’ll enjoy it anyway, because it’s excellent – but knowing you’re doing a bit of good as well, well it does make it taste that little bit better.
Scores on the doors
Value for money 9/10
Best for: Eating with a conscience
Worst for: Chicken Tikka Masala