The train of women, integration, gastronomic memory: The Darjeeling Express. The Indian restaurant of Asma Khan told through a journey of hope.
Carries lost souls
dreams will not be thwarted
faith will be rewarded.”
Asma Said Khan, Chef Patron Darjeeling Express. First British Chef to feature in Netflix Chefs Table (season 6)
Sang Bruce Springsteen in 2012 in his song “Land of Hope and Dreams”. In the same year, on the other side of the ocean, in London, Asma Khan opened her own restaurant: the Darjeeling Express. “When I was a child I used to get on this train that took me to the cool of the mountain and it was a sort of moment of freedom. On that train I called my name and the mountains echoed it. I thought the mountain recognized me.”
On this train Asma brings a team of 24 people – mainly women from India and Nepal – united, symphonic, familiar and able to welcome you thanks to the pleasant sounds of the kitchen or the strong laugh that comes from it.
Asma Khan is an explosion of energy, passion and depth that pervades the soul of anyone around her: she represents the deepest essence of female independence. The interview with Asma was a fascinating journey through the facets of life: it showed me the multitude of colours of India, the acceptance of human diversity, the importance of female dignity and the strength of passion that leads to significant choices for oneself and for others.
When you enter the Darjeeling Express it seems as if you are immersed in the kitchens of grandmothers, who, even in a small space, manage to create an atmosphere of celebration and conviviality typical of the great celebrations. At the Darjeeling Express every day is a celebration, every day is a battle and every day a victory.
Where do you come from and what brought you here?
I was born in Calcutta and I spent most of my life in India. In 1991 I had an arranged marriage, my husband was teaching economics at Cambridge University, I met him there, and within three months I moved there. I came in UK in January, which is the worst month: it was cold, like living in prison. I had an offer to study law in Cambridge, and I did it but it was a very cold and lonely city and my husband was working a lot. So, I didn’t want to be alone again, I moved to London, I had my degree, the PHD, my two kids, but I loved to cook even though in the beginning I didn’t know how to cook. I realized that I couldn’t bring my family or anything that is warm and beautiful about India to Cambridge, but I could bring the food. At the beginning it was really difficult and I struggled a lot: I knew nobody, I had no friends and the paradox is that I come from a big family where you’re never alone. You don’t eat a single meal alone.
The day I did my PHD oral exam, I passed, I started online my food business. Then I started the supper club having no money. My husband was not impressed because I did really well law school and once he told me “You have so much to give: Become a lawyer, because it’s the only way you can make a difference. You will never make a difference with cooking.” How wrong he was. I have shown that you can make a difference if you want to make a difference: you don’t have to be a lawyer or a cook, you just need to care so much. My victory, my fame it worth nothing if I didn’t change women’s lives. I didn’t know what I was going do, I used to dream I would make a difference though food and it actually made a difference to me: it took me home, it gave me power, confidence, it healed me from inside, it healed me from within. So, I wanted to give the same feeling to someone else, I wanted them to feel healed. You know, everyone is a migrant, even though they don’t recognize it: your home and family is somewhere else and your food is not there with you. So, at least, even though is not your food, I want to bring you to some kind of food that reminds you a food cooked with love: this is basically my story.
Is there a sparkle that brought you to cooking?
I was just unhappy. My husband was a very bad cook, and he used to cook for me, he used to say said “why should woman cook and man not?”, but he was a terrible cook and I was so scared to say something to him. One day I just said “stop cooking for me- she said laughing- but I didn’t know how to cook, so I kept quiet and and then it happened: one day I was learning how to cycle, I passed someone’s house and they were making Indian bread ..the smell of that bread.. I wanted to go in and ask them if I could eat the parataa with them. So, I started to cry, and I thought: “I will never cry again for hunger, I will not cry again because I am so empty. I will just learn how to cook.” I went home and I learned to cook. Crying for bread, for the smell of butter, and the frying bread, made me think I was useless. This was the turning point where I learned and I wanted to become the world’s best. It wasn’t to feed only me – looking at my size you would think I eat all the food- but to feed other people too. To take away that emptiness from the people.
What do you want to express trough your cuisine? What is the soul of your kitchen?
I want to communicate that I embrace you with my food. It is a home-cooking, in respect with all cultures. In so many cultures the women are powerful, they are the boss in the kitchen, they cook with love. What you taste is not just the food: you taste the fingerprint, their touch. they serve it with pride and love to their people, their family. Their love is what I want to communicate. One day someone left a note in the kitchen saying “you took me back to some place that I’ve had forgotten existed and now I want to go back.” It is those childhood memory of being fed with love that I want to express through my kitchen, even if it’s a different food, there is something about woman cooking together: no shouting or screaming, it’s a lot of passion, love and excitement that is cook. I just wanted people in my kitchen that would cook like me, with passion, who watched and learn without asking questions. In my culture mothers or grandmothers don’t teach you how to cook, it is against their principles, you have to watch them silently, without asking questions, while they are screaming, shouting and laughing. Once I called my mother, when I was learning how to cook and asked her: “for how long do I have to cook the chicken” and she said “until it’s done” ahh very helpful I said. It was crazy, but they just know.
From that moment on I thought: this is how we will make it. Food will be our way to brake the chains, to brake out all the boxes that people put you in as an immigrant. I am whatever I want to be and for me my passion is to cook and these woman have also the same passion. I didn’t plan to have a restaurant, a supperclub, and I want women to know this: don’t think too much. If your hart feels it just do it, you will succeed if you think you will succeed, you will fail if you think you will fail. It is about self believe. I didn’t dream the restaurant, I just dreamt success. Every time I hit something I got up because I knew: I won’t stop and I will never loose. This is not arrogance: it was me doing this for all of us: every woman who has had children, is at home or never had a business. I wanted to succeed for anybody else that couldn’t do it and you can’t succeed alone. Infact, this is not my success, it’s theirs, the one of my women: I am where I am because of them and they know it.
How do you think you can distinguish your restaurant from the various Indian you can find in London?
I think that the biggest thing is that we cook a very different kind of cuisine: we cook homefood. And it is all cooked by woman, it’s not granted, it’s not sophisticated. It is a very elegant homecooking, but we have a very small menu, very few items all cook fresh on the day. We never learned how to cook in a big way: we all come from small kitchen, so we cook with the respect of ingredients, we buy a little bit, we don’t waste, we don’t try to impress or decorate the dish. I want you to know the dish the moment you see it, you have to eat with your eyes first. I am very straight forward: this is my food and it’s made like this. Moreover we don’t have hierarchy in the kitchen: everyone is the same. We cook like a group, like in a family where everyone is equal. I think that is what makes us different from all the restaurant, not only from the Indian one.
Nowadays kitchen are full of man. You decided to work with women, emigrants, non- professional cook. What is the reason?
I think that is very important to work with women because in many cultures, especially the one that are patriarchal, cooking is done by women. All the recipes are handed over by woman.
In professional kitchen, for example in India, you hardly find women in restaurants and this is just wrong, because our cuisine it is a feminine cuisine, about celebrating them. This is the reason I wanted to create a space where people could look inside and see only women. I want people to be inspired by this: many people didn’t honour their mother or grandmother and took for granted the culinary heritage they left.
How did you meet them?
I met my first woman in my child school, she was an Indian nanny. The first time I saw her she looked same as my eyes: lost. I told her to come to my house for a tea and she was so happy. Then she started to come at my supperclub to help and she started bringing some friends to hel too. When they were in the kitchen with me we were laughing, no one wanted to go home, we were just eating and enjoying. They don’t have a family here, they send money to their families and for all of us, being together, we just felt home. Then we became very close, like sisters and we didn’t talk about what are we going to do: it just happened. Now we are the same people since 2012.
Do you think food is or could be a vehicle through which people can brake cultural boundaries?
Absolutely. I will not let you hate me because of the colour of my skin, my accent or my muslim name: first you have to eat with me. Sit down and brake bread with me: in the bible the 21st verse is about braking bread: it’s the symbolism, the fact that for you and me it is a sharing moment. In that moment the bread it’s the bridge between us and all the difference just disappear. I can see this in my supperclubs: the food is the way where conversation starts, n the whole table from silence become buzzing. Your food is part of your DNA, it’s part of your heritage and so it’s mine. If I eat something about your heritage I understand something about you in eating that food and it it is very powerful. Cooking is a gift, not everybody has is and if you have it is not just about making money out of it: should be something more. Maybe I am idealistic, but too many people teach how to hate: politicians, media. Food is about politics. I don’t want to hate anyone, I want to love, and food is a way through which I can love everybody: A you can’t have a fight if your mouth is full- says laughing- B if you stomach is full you don’t want to fight. I think food is a vehicle for love and change, also for forgiveness. Call people, call a friend who is having a hard period or just treat yourself, be good to yourself. The most valuable thing we put in a dish it’s the time: It’s such a big gift and we don’t understand it when we cook. We are usually so stressed but bring your food at a different level: make people feel loved, don’t try to impress them.
When you stated cooking which part of India you wanted to bring to London metaphorically and non?
It was bringing the food from my fathers’ and mothers’ home: Deli and Calcutta. In my menu you can find both food and a city in the south of India where I grew up as a child between 3-7 years old, when I discover food and big feast. I remember I was so impressed about this amount of food. Basically the menu is the story of my life, my childhood, my love for my parents, for my country and also stories that I remember people told me. My menu changes depending on my mood and when I serve I want to see people’s eyes: that is my excitement. I want people to eat the food I love, it’s a very personal thing
What is the message that you want to impart when people sit in your restaurant?
The main thing is the feeling of home. I want them to remember a time someone cooked like this for them. An amazing thing is that many people told me “ If my grandmother could cook Indian food she would cook like this.” I understand what they mean. This is beyond cuisine, it’s about some childhood memory of lot of food that is being given by someone who loves you.
What was the most difficult challenge you had when you first came to London and decided to became a cook even though you didn’t attend a cooking school?
The biggest problem was money. I had to start small, the supperclub was great because I could do it in my house when my husband was away ( I lied to him- says laughing) . I was scared because I thought people wouldn’t come to my house, but the response was amazing. I could not afford to have someone to prep, or wash or buy new pans. I did everything slowly and alone at the beginning, and I manage to find a way. I am still learning: I am not insecure but I need people’s feedback in order to know how can I get better.
The topic of local is more and more important: how do you approach it?
I don’t have a specific local partner but the thing I do is that I don’t have any fruit or veggie from India, I only use British product (cauliflower, beetroot..). I know that people in India use a lot of fertilizers to grow vegetables, so I only cook local. My menu is seasonal, and I use British vegetables to cook Indian food because It’s very important for me the topic of local and sustainable.
You became famous, Netflix dedicated an episode about you, many people started to talk about you and your story, did it change something in your life because of this?
It change how many people came to eat here, it got crazy. Regarding me, I feel very humble and grateful. I am conscious that this is my time in the spotlight where I can talk about immigration, power, race, food, love, women. I don’t want to talk about myself, I want to talk about things that metters: love, respect, honour, bringing community together. I speak for those that cannot speak. I am the face of a movement that talks about homecook.
What do you miss the most about India?
My family, being home. The softness of my parents, their kindness.
In your opinion how today’s society is reflected in gastronomy and how should it be?
I would like it broader, woman occupying more space in gastronomy, to see more homecook, food that really has a real meaning, that is local, sustainable, kitchen without anger or bulling, restaurants that are honouring guests but also staff. I would like to see all those changes.
Do you have a smell or dish that brings you back to an emotional memory?
The Biriani because it brings back to me the memories of my family, who taught me how to cook. In that smell of biriani I capture all my culinary heritage and roots. Biriani it’s more than a dish: It is about faith, belief in yourself. In the making of Biriani you can’t control the cooking of rice, you need to have faith. We need to be humble, understand that we are not making it, because nature has gifted us the rice, only then I can play with it.
Thank you so much Asma!
The Darjeeling Express is a restaurant in the heart of Myfair in London. For more information, please visit https://www.darjeeling-express.com/locations
Or to the email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations (the waiting list is always very long)