Interview with an Innovator

Darjeeling Express’ Asma Khan: ‘People don’t want to come and have chicken tikka masala – those days are gone'

Soon to appear on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Khan talks about the unfortunate trend happening in Indian food in the UK, how the cuisine has so much more to offer and why there is no chilli powder in her restaurant kitchen.

18 January 2019
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image credit: Justin Lambert

Khan on Paper – CV

  • Studied law, including completing a PhD in British constitutional law, but then decided food was her calling
  • Spent five years hosting a supper club at home and around London, including a residency at Soho’s Sun & 13 Cantons pub
  • Opened her restaurant Darjeeling Express in June 2017

Asma Khan will be the first British chef to appear on the popular Netflix program Chef’s Table, which is due to hit TV screens in March. Not bad for someone who didn’t even know how to boil an egg when she first moved to the UK in 1991. She’s scared about her Indian restaurant, Darjeeling Express, being overwhelmend once the show is aired, but also excited that a “middle aged housewife’s” story will be told to a global audience.

Hearing more from women is something Khan is passionate about. Her own restaurant kitchen is entirely staffed by women. Equally, she is not afraid to voice her concerns about the Indian food served up in restaurants in UK, and in doing so she implores male chefs to experiment more and reach back into their cultural heritage to serve up authentic dishes.

Khan descends from an ancient warrior tribe in Rajasthan, in northern India, and has royal Mughal culinary heritage – dishes of which appear in both her cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen, and on the menu at her Soho restaurant. Home cooking, drawn from both her mother and father’s cultures, is the driving force of her dishes, along with street food and even Indo-Chinese influences.

She chats to Food Spark about the dessert she proudly makes from carrots that is akin to a sticky toffee pudding, how freshness is key to her cooking and why there needs to be something other than Michelin stars to celebrate restaurants.

 

When I grew up food was central to everything we did and I think that was hugely fortunate because I was part of that generation in India before cable TV, mobile phones and any computers, so the only way people entertained themselves was by having a party and eating. Everyone was completely focused on the food as there were no other distractions.

I began in autumn of 2012 the supper club in my own house. I brought a big pot and the rest was from my house. It was very small with 12 to 14 people and then it grew to me having 45 people in my sitting room.  

I didn’t think anyone would be interested in my cookbook as everyone is interested in healthy Indian; Indian with a twist; modern Indian cooking, which is not at all what I do. The techniques are traditional, but simple and basic, and are all about the instinct and layering of food.

I never wanted a restaurant as I knew that would require an investor and that’s like having another arranged marriage. My first marriage was an arranged marriage. I didn’t want to go into this blind date situation and take someone’s money… That would churn my stomach the idea that invariably a man would tell me what to do with my business because he gave me money, so a restaurant wasn’t even on my horizon.

A landlord, who had been eating at my pop up every Friday, offered me a lease for a restaurant without a premium on it, which is anything between £100,000 and £200,000 and that’s dead money otherwise – that is gone.

image credit: Ming Tang-Evans

The food at Darjeeling Express is something different to any restaurant you would go to here or even in India because it’s the home style cooking of certain households in India. It’s not like the food you get in every house as there is so much variety and variance depending on regions.

The food I cook is the family of my mother and father. My father is from Rajput, an area where there is only roti, and my mother is Bengali. She couldn’t stand roti and only had rice.

I lived In Hyderabad for five years and that was the first experience I had of going to a big banquet. I was too young to eat a lot of the food as it was too spicy, but I remember the spices, the taste and what the food looked like.

There are dishes on the menu from Hyderabad, the restaurant also has very unique palace food and then I have street food and I have food the poor would eat in Calcutta. I celebrate the rich and I celebrate the poor. It’s India after all, the country of contradictions.

The Indo-Chinese chilli garlic prawns everybody is completely blown away by. It’s a very simple dish and it’s something most people would not have eaten as it’s so different as it's smoked chilli that the Chinese would grow themselves in Tangra in Calcutta.

Also the goat curry. Again, it’s very unusual and it’s nice a lot of people are willing to try goat for the first time.

The carrot halwa is the dish I’m most proud of. There are endless versions of halwa from central Asia to Greece, but this particular halwa is one my father’s family has made for big family weddings, normally for 5,000 people, and they make this because it was the cheapest thing to make.

I cook my halwa in the traditional way and I cook it for eight hours and the spoon has been especially made for this from hammered metal, because you can’t make the halwa without that kind of spoon. I had a big cooker sized exactly so the pot would fit. I designed the kitchen based on where we were going to make the halwa. It brings something so unique to this restaurant. This halwa people don’t forget. It’s completely caramelised, dense, slightly smoky and it’s sticky, almost like sticky toffee pudding, but it’s all made from carrots and we don’t add anything to bulk it up or make it feel expensive.

Carrot halwa
image credit: Ming Tang-Evans

There was this roti we had at the beginning which is made by my father’s family for travelling so it’s a dense, wholemeal bread, with chopped onion, garlic and chillies in it. It’s so tasty and delicious, the recipe is in my book. But a lot of Indians had never eaten it, they asked if the roti was chapatti. They said it’s not what it’s meant to look like… I would have to come out and explain it, so we took it off the menu. It was too unique, so everyone who was not Indian loved it but Indians who came in, because they hadn’t eaten it, they were thrown by it.

One of the ingredients I use for the mutton shikampuri kabab, which is on the menu now, is a unique spice called shah zeera. It is a cumin looking thing and comes from central Asia and I use that for different tastes. If anyone from Central Asia ate it they wouldn’t recognise it either as we’ve added chillies to it and garlic and ginger and made this kebab very Indian, but there is this spice but doesn’t belong to India as well, and we are going to keep this dish in the future. It’s something that everyone eats that say there is different spices in each bite – that is a real technique.

We are not using sauces or masala paste or powders premade that get delivered. We grind fresh ingredients every morning and the combination is what I have seen my family cook with my eyes, it’s not measured, it’s about how that spice looks ground to make it into the paste.

We don’t even use chilli powder in our restaurant. In any other Indian restaurant there are piles of chilli powder. We used dried chillies to infuse the oil and then we take the chillies out, that is why your stomach will never burn as you don’t need to digest chilli oil, but the food is still super spicy. It’s a subtlety that comes from the royal heritage I have where the last thing that hits you is the chilli.

I like to be a disruptor and go in and change things otherwise what’s the point in living? I have changed perceptions of Indian food. We have bought honour back to the women who cooked.

Indian restaurants are run by people in this country who are trained in chef school in India. They do production line cooking where the whole emphasis is on batch cooking, mass cooking, long menus.

There is an insecurity of these men running Indian restaurants. Be brave, bring in things that are unusual, bring in your grandmother’s dish on the menu, don’t be afraid!

People don’t want to come and have chicken tikka masala – those days are gone – they’re dead. It’s time to be innovative and explore your heritage and not to cook the generic Indian food that they learned at an Indian five star hotel.

Someone came to my restaurant and said this isn’t dal, it should be black with cream and butter and I felt like crying. I said no one in India eats that dhal except Punjabis through two months in winter… Even naan, not a single Indian household bakes naan. I’m not sure a lot of people know that because you need to have a tandoor.

People think naan bread and black dal is our food. It’s not. It’s what the men who went to culinary school figured out what you can do to effectively run a restaurant. It’s convenience food.

We make everything fresh at Darjeeling Express. We cook between services that’s why we close between 2pm and 3pm and we make fresh puris (fried bread), which you would never find in any restaurant because it requires too much skill. We make one puri at a time, so sometimes customers are a bit upset that they are waiting but the moment the puri comes and they touch it, they understand. You fry it one at a time, it’s not like naan where you stretch it like fabric and can do five naans in one go, you have to fry one puri at a time otherwise it won’t puff up.

image credit: Ming Tang-Evans

I didn’t make a decision to have an all women kitchen but I saw this is where I could help make a change.

I think that first we need to address the deep rooted bias in the media and among the landlords and investors about females and female-owned businesses. It could start with the media because if they highlight women who are successful and the head female chefs then it shows other women it can be done.

Also the Michelin system it’s for white tablecloths, wine lists that are superior with sommeliers, it’s not something that many women will end up opening – certainly we are not going to get Michelin stars – and there should be another way of acknowledging and celebrating restaurants.

I’m really scared as I’ve heard stories about restaurants being inundated after being on Chef’s Table. But I’ll face it and I’m excited, especially as I have seen the episode. I obviously didn’t know what they would show as they filmed for almost 20 days in India in my palace and with my family and with my restaurant with the women, but I cried even though I know the story so well.

I think the big thing is going to be African food. Every Sunday I open my kitchen for free for supper clubs and we have been trying to get more African, South African and Caribbean food for people to try. I hope there will be a lot more interest in African cuisine as the ingredients are all in Brixton.

Also I hope we will see a lot more women-led kitchens and the shift in gender balance.

I am not a huge fan of the calorie heavy, junk style vegan food. A lot of Indian is vegan.

Unfortunately there is only one thing that is going to evolve in Indian food in the UK – that’s the formula of fine dining, as all Indians are copycats. So the first Indian restaurant Tamarind got its Michelin-star trying to make the food look a bit more French and changing the presentation and the wine.

Now everyone else that is doing fine dining followed suite so this a terrible trend, which is going to continue. Three restaurants opened last year all following the same modern plating, trying to get aspirations for a Michelin star. It’s so unimaginative, it’s not at all creative because it’s exactly what the other restaurants are making.

You feel sad as there is so much depth in our own cuisine, there are endless regional dishes that people have never even made or tasted in this country, so why are you replicating exactly the same thing? So it’s really sad that it has devastated our creativity and washed out the ability of very good chefs of going their own way and celebrating their heritage.

I think there is more room for regional cuisine and I’m optimistic about that.

I think it’s so important to not have a production line kitchen, you don’t need to have 85 items on the menu or even 25. I think the British public, especially Londoners, have such a sophisticated palate. I’ve noticed if they don’t know what something is, they will still order it.

I like to cook biryani. I’m going to introduce a biryani tasting menu every Saturday.

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