Taking the Darjeeling Express

Now, if I was Guy Fieri, and I had taken up squatting rights on Food Network, I would say I was on the Darjeeling Express to Flavourtown. I am not he, but you know…the food at Asma Khan’s pop up restaurant/supper club transports you fairly and squarely into the very heart of Flavourtown, if Flavourtown was in the middle of Calcutta, scented with cinnamon, cloves and flowing with masala chai. 
The welcome you get at this place, right in the heart of Soho, fitted neatly in to The Sun and 13 Cantons pub, is warm, genuine and very talkative. 
Now I can talk, I am rather well known for it (I sometimes joke that my husband, a naturally reticent man, married me so that I could do all the talking for him and save him the effort) but Asma beats me. She studied law, but food became her calling, finally what she wanted to do. Read more about her here, in an excellent interview with Nicky Richmond.
She fair bubbles over with the love and joy of sharing the foods and tastes of her country, and her passion for bringing ‘her’ women together in a safe place to work and teach. In doing so she tucks her arm into yours, brings you into her home and, more importantly, leads you into her kitchen and feeds you the choicest morsels of what she has cooked that day, as you would do for any honoured guest.
And an Honoured Guest is indeed how she and her staff make you feel.
We visited on a chilly Tuesday evening, determined to get there before her tenure ends on the 19th March. I am sad that it is ending, because I would go back time and time again if I could. I can’t quite work out why it took me so long. 
I was sorely in need of good company and happy things that night. My lovely friends and Asma provided all that I needed and more.
My delight in finding a place that had comfortable seating, with moveable tables! I am broad of beam, and utterly sick of places that stick their tables so close together that you could part waves in someone else’s gravy with your arse as you leave should you so choose.
Not this place. We had a proper table with comfortable banquettes, and a functioning candelabra to illuminate our dinner. Photos by candlelight are tricky, but I think we did ok, though they may be a little grainy. I was there for the food, not the photo opportunities.

It was hard to stop talking long enough to order drinks.but we did. Snig got a Nimbu Pani, homemade lemonade, which looked ever so refreshing. 
I was eyeing up the Masala Chai for later in the evening. No way was I going to leave without having one of those. (you’ll note it is NOT Chai Tea. Chai means tea. So, coffee shops, stop selling ‘Tea Tea’.)
There was, as you can imagine with a table full of food bloggers, a lot of excitement about the menu. We settled on Puchkas, Papri Chaat, Masala Fries and Mutton Shikampuri Kebabs for our starters.
We started on the Papri Chaat first. 
Each crisp wafer was topped with black chickpeas, potato and a darkly tart and fruity tamarind sauce, surrounded by crunchy sev. We devoured those – or possibly inhaled – and then moved quickly on to the Puchkas, which are small, delicately crisp hollow shells, filled with the spiced chickpea mix, but also tamarind water which you pour in yourself. You eat them in one go, because if you try and bite in, you get tamarind water all down your chin. 
These two dishes are something that I would never tire of eating. The mellow chickpeas, the soft potatoes and the dark tang of the tamarind are perfect bedfellows. It is a lovely street food but, according to the conversations at our table,  not one to have in India if you are not a native, because the local water will upset you if you aren’t used to it. Asma said that one of her friends loved these so much, she’d just plan extra time off when she goes home as she just can’t stop eating them, and is happy to pay the price. I think I’ll just go to see Asma. And order two of everything.
Next came the Mutton Shikampuri Kebab. The word ‘minced’ on the menu doesn’t do these justice. The meat is spiced, and very finely ground, then folded around a yoghurt centre. They are so very delicate and light, and more highly spiced than the first two dishes, which did find me asking Asma for some of their stunning strained yoghurt, as I was not leaving any behind just because I’m a chilli wuss. These take a practiced hand to make, as they may well fall apart if the cook is not careful. These really are a melt in the mouth dish.

Masala Fries. That’s a name to make me sit up, and I was not disappointed. These are not your triple cooked chips with a dense wall of crunch, though I love those too. These are hand cut, skin on potatoes, turning out how they would at home; some crisped edges, some tender steamed innards, all sprinkled with a spice mix to make you smile with glee and do a little food dance. 
We decided to have a little rest before plunging on in to the mains. I mean, we had talking to do!
And then, the March of the Mains started. Goat Kosha Mangsho, Venison Kofta, Tamarind Dhal, Niramish, beautifully perfect rice, tomato chutney, roti and more of that lovely yoghurt.
Where to start, where to start!
Take a bit of everything, put on plate. Easiest way. 
A lovely plateful

The first thing I went for was the dhal. If I was sentenced to only eat dhal and rice for the rest of my life I would be happy if it was this dhal. (So long as there was some ghee along the way somewhere.) Soothing, and smokey, with real depth to it, and some tang too. It had that silky but slightly rough texture that makes it so homely. Thin enough that it soaks into the perfectly separate rice grains, but thick enough to cling and coat. Wonderful. The rotis that came with it were unlike the very soft Gujarati ones I was used to, they don’t fold around the food as easily, but they taste lovely. Buttery, and wholesome. I had to try very hard not to eat all of them. 

The goat is on the bone, just as it should be. It was full of chilli heat, but also full of so many deep and savoury flavours that I just secured some yoghurt and carried on. 
The hottest thing for me was actually the Niramish, and that was the only dish I wasn’t keen on. I’d been eager to try since reading about Madhur Jaffrey’s first, sad experience of Niramish when she came to London, decades ago, but it just didn’t do it for me. I like all the components, so I was a bit unsure as to why I didn’t like it. Maybe that one I need to make myself, and adjust the spices. Never say never!
The venison kofta are small, and dense, in direct contrast to the  mutton kebab. Very meaty, in a fragrant, mild creamy sauce. I think there was cardamom in there. Very nice indeed, with a sauce that needed mopping up with extra rice so as not to leave any behind.
At this point, we paused. Full, sated, happy. 
Then our lovely hostess asked if we wanted desserts, with a twinkle in her eye. She knew, oh she knew… 
Indian desserts are a bit of a thing for me. I love them. From the denseness of the huge range of barfis, to the orange stickiness of freshly made jalebi, to the gentle squeak of ras malai and the tender, juicy gulab jamun – and oh my goodness the rich silk of the rice pudding.
Yes, we wanted desserts.
Small, sweet Hunza apricots in clotted cream, and the much longed for kheer turned up, along with four glasses of fragrant Masala Chai.
The Chai was everything I wanted. I had to close my eyes as I sipped it, simply to savour it even more. It took me right back to being 14 again, sitting in my Indian friends’ kitchens. Balvinder’s tall, slim mum with her shy smile, long grey plaited hair and deft, speedy cooking. Lucky’s round and voluble ma, with black curly hair and a relaxed slowness to her kitchen routine as she bossed her four daughters around. Vidhya’s birdlike mother, with quicksilver tongue, practiced hand and sad eyes. All of these made me masala chai, in different ways, and I loved them all equally. So much so that I kept a jar of chai masala at home. 
Once my moment of nostalgia was passed, the food called.
I’ve never had Hunza apricots before, and was thrilled at how juicy and sweet they were. Not syrupy, just naturally sweet, holding their own against the cream and the slivers of pistachio. Many a bowl of those could be easily and speedily consumed.
The Kheer was everything I wanted it to be. Gently spiced, soft, creamy and utterly comforting. Sometimes it can be too sweet, too rich, but this was light and made with a delicate hand on the sugar. 
All in all, a huge success. 
Asma talks of what to do next, perhaps a community oriented kitchen space, where everyone is welcome. She tries to support women where she can, buying the lovely shaped wooden dishes that the yoghurt comes in from India, where women can make them from wood gathered from the trees at the edge of the forests, because you do not venture further in.
She is a feeder, a warm, kind, caring and passionate woman, with a longing to cook for people. Food is love, and affection, and a way to honour your friends. If you step into her place, you are her guests, not just her customers.
The difference this makes is huge. 
It’s personal.
 “Kavey, don’t eat the green and red chutney, those are too hot for you, go for the other sauce.” or “I can temper the chili in this dish, but in the goat it’s already set. I’ll bring yoghurt.”

Bringing us lots of containers so that Alicia could take our extra food home for her husband.

Asma’s effortless friendliness is easy to love. I will be watching with great interest to see what she does next because whatever it is, I want to be there.

One thought on “Taking the Darjeeling Express

  1. Lovely. I knew we were getting those apricots the second I saw them on the menu before we even ordered starters! I tried to order two portions but you all didn't believe me till you tasted them!Love that you picked up on Asma knowing my chilli tolerance, I've eaten her cooking many times but still it's lovely as a customer to be remembered and cherished.


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