A taste of home, and the flavours of 1930s India: A conversation with Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express

Asma Khan - photo Charlotte Hu

Being a guest at Asma Said Khan’s supperclubs is like dining at your aunty’s place – food that tantalises the tastebuds, but also roots, and comforts. There’s a homeliness about it, a ‘betakallufi’ (informality). From her hearty Hyderabadi haleem and decadent gaajar ka halwa to the pièce de résistance – a saffron scented Calcutta dum biryani – Asma’s cooking is a joy to experience.

I met Asma four years ago at her first Darjeeling Express supperclub at her home in London. Since then I’ve followed her journey from intimate supperclubs to pop-ups around various venues and street markets in the city. I caught up with her recently to find out more about her early forays into the culinary world, her food, and what lies over the horizon.

Asma Khan - Haleem - photo Rida Bilgrami

Asma’s haleem

Asma moved from India to Cambridge in the early 90s after marriage. With a limited culinary repertoire, she lived off her husband’s staple chicken curry during those early years in the UK. But nostalgia for home, and a desire to connect with others in her new surroundings by hosting dinner parties, led her back to the kitchens she grew up eating in, and particularly to learning family recipes from the early part of the 20th century.

Asma traces her roots to some of India’s greatest cities – Calcutta, Aligarh, Hyderabad, Darjeeling – and influences and nuances from all these regions are reflected in her cooking. In her own words, she cooks the food of 1930s undivided India, and especially the food of Muslim families. Having grown up in Karachi to a family that migrated to Pakistan soon after Partition, Asma’s food is vividly reminiscent for me of lunches and dinners at my aunts’ and grandparents’ homes.

We talk about how Partition changed the culinary landscape of the subcontinent. “Partition was devastating for our cuisine. In Pakistan, food became increasingly influenced by the Punjab, and now has a lot more chilli. The Muslim families that remained in India did so either because they were very poor, or because they were aristocrats who had too much lose from migrating. Those aristocrats couldn’t maintain the same lifestyle as they had during British rule – and the feasts and banquets serving traditional dishes started disappearing. Today that cuisine is still cooked in some Muslim homes, but without the grandeur that once existed.”

Asma Khan - biryani - photo Rida Bilgrami

Biryani

While Asma caters weddings and events, and also recently completed a well-received year long residency at Soho pub and restaurant ‘The Sun and 13 Cantons’, her heart lies in her supperclubs. “I can’t cook for two to four people! I only know how to cook for 20 people or more because that’s how we cook back home” she laughs, and then adds more seriously “I love that my supperclub guests, many of whom don’t know each other, converse with each other about food, politics and other topics. In essence they’re sharing stories about their journeys. Growing up in India, there was always somebody relating a story over a meal.”

I ask her what she thinks about the South Asian food scene in London. “At one end you have the established and pricey restaurants – Benaras, Gymkhana – who are doing an interesting take on Indian food. On the other end you find pockets in Southall serving simple and authentic dishes. But I find that many restaurants in London tweak recipes to suit the local palette. I am living proof that you don’t need to do that. Londoners are the most broad-minded people. They love experimenting with food.” Happily, she notes, there’s also a noticeable trend of showcasing the rich regional diversity of Indian and South Asian food, by both established as well as upcoming chefs in London.

Asma Khan - gaajar halwa - photo Rida Bilgrami

Gaajar ka Halwa

So what are her top tips for those all-important South Asian treats? Here’s the Darjeeling Express low-down!

Chaat: Inito, Talli Joe

Kulfi: Café Spice Namaste

Chai: Mumbai Local

Puchkas/ Pani Puri: Scarfes Bar

Biryani: Farokh Talati’s Quail Biryani (stay tuned for info about his next supperclub!)

The result of the Brexit vote was hugely disappointing for Asma who believes that immigrants have transformed London’s food culture and traditions. She felt the need to respond to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that was so prevalent in the run up to the vote, and even after. “I believe in the power of sharing a meal in order to understand and celebrate what unites us rather than what divides us”. So she’s curated a series of supperclubs aiming to celebrate the diversity of London through food. ‘#MyLondonSupperclubs’ runs until 17th September at ’68 and Boston’ in Soho, and features a variety of chefs presenting cuisines from countries as diverse as Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Nepal, and Malaysia (find out more here).

And there’s even more in store – a cookbook that will hit the shelves next year, and a permanent abode in the form of a restaurant may also be on the cards. It’s full steam ahead for The Darjeeling Express!

In the meantime, and with Eid around the corner, we’re delighted to bring you Asma’s recipe for the very festive Seviyaan. This is a classic Eid dessert made with roasted vermicelli steeped in milk flavoured with cardamom, nuts and dried fruits. The recipe is below, and we’ll keep you posted about Asma’s upcoming supperclubs.

 

Seviyaan

My memories of Eid in India were of visiting friends and families and being offered this traditional dessert at every home. I prefer this version of Seviyaan served warm but you can serve it at room temperature or chilled. It is delicious warm or cold! If you can add chhuhara (dried dates) to the dish, that will give it a whole new dimension and make it more authentic.

Serves 6-8

Cooking time 20 min – soaking time 1 hour. Chhuhara soaking time overnight in fridge (optional)

INGREDIENTS
  • 4 whole almonds
  • 4 whole pistachio nuts
  • 1 tablespoon chironji seeds
  • 1 tablespoon raisins or fresh coconut slivers (or both – I use both!)
  • 6 cups full fat milk
  • 100 grams seviyaan or vermicelli
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 green cardamoms
  • 40 grams ghee or unsalted butter
  • 4 whole chhuhara (dried dates) boiled in half a cup of milk. Take it off the heat once it boils and once it is cooled refrigerate overnight (this step is optional).
METHOD

Soak the nuts (almonds, pistachio and chironji) in cold water for an hour. Take the skin off the almonds and pistachios, and cut into slivers. If using coconut, cut them into small squares (thin even sized pieces of ½ inch squares) – not into slivers.

Boil the milk in a pan. In another pan, flash fry the seviyaan in half the ghee or butter (the seviyaan have to be broken into very small pieces) with the cloves and cardamoms, and add to the boiling milk. The seviyaan will cook quite quickly. Add the sugar and once this has dissolved, take the pan off the flame. In a different pan, add the remaining ghee and fry the almonds, pistachio, chironji seeds, coconut and raisins. Add the mixture to the seviyaan. If you are using the dried dates – add these, and the milk they were soaking in at this stage, and let the dish warm. I prefer the dish served warm. It can also be chilled and served.

 

Update (30 September 2016): Asma has two of her famous biryani super clubs coming up.

When: Saturday 1 October 2016

Where: Secret location in Blackfriars, London EC1A

Tickets: £42

More info: Edible Experiences website

 

When: Wednesday 12th October 2016

Where: Secret location in Blackfriars, London EC1A

Tickets: £42

More info: Edible Experiences website

 

Rida Bilgrami’s day job focuses on the geopolitics of food, water and land security. With an academic background in anthropology, she is also drawn to exploring how cultures, rituals and relationships are shaped by food. This curiosity regularly lands her in the thick of London’s vibrant food scene. Rida grew up in Karachi and New York, and has been fortunate to call Colombo, Bangkok, and Boston ‘home’ at various points in her life. 

 

Posted by RB on 11 September 2016

Top & home page photos by Charlotte Hu. All other photos by RB.

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