Above: Chef Asma of Darjeeling Express whirring in action.
Chef Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express Indian supperclub is runaway train of deliciousness, and I consider myself very lucky to be part of her exciting edible journey.
When the law PhD graduate is not running her free legal clinic for women, or raising funds for new infrastructure for her childrens' school, or volunteering with with food charities (to the point of fighting their parking tickets incurred while making crucial deliveries, goes one story), she's feeding supperclub guests -- sometimes 30 to 55 at a time -- some of the finest Indian food I've tasted this side of the Bay of Bengal.
Quite a feat for someone who learned how to cook only after she got married. Her kitchen mentor, she told me, is an old blind chef back home in India. Who taught her how to cook recipes which have been in her family for 4 generations with all of her senses.
The result? Have a look at some of her starters, for starters.
Haleem: a traditional Hyderabadi pounded wheat porridge, slow-cooked with shredded mutton and spices, lifted and lightened by a sprinkle of coriander and a squeeze of lime. Its hefty comfort-food appeal makes it a popular dish at break-fast time during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. I think of haleem as baby food, if your baby is a sumo wrestler.
Calcutta-style chicken kaati rolls and momos (Tibetan dumplings). One day, if we're very lucky, we will see a Darjeeling Express food truck selling these kaati rolls for lunch. A girl can hope!
Expertly fried chicken and samosa and tangy tamarindy potato, a popular street snack in many Indian cities.
I struggle to photograph curries well. So these photos here really don't do justice to Darjeeling Express's Bengali fish malai curry (left) and prawn curry. And even if I did, how would one capture the spice-mix profile of the curry, so much deeper, more subtle, more complex than your neighbourhood Balti house?
I also realised after 2 Darjeeling Express events that I have consistently failed to photograph Asma's lamb dishes (evidence below). It's only when I get down to the lovely bones that I smack my forehead and reach for the camera. I blame Asma's blind mentor, who went as far as to hold Asma's hand and teach her how to read the weight and balance of a ladle when lifting slow cooked lamb out of a pot, so that the tender meat doesn't flake and fall off off before it reaches the serving platter.
That's why other cooks' lamb dishes are not as tender, Asma tells me. They fear the pre-platter disintegration and so they don't cook it as long. I suppose the unintended effect is pre-camera inhalation!
While Asma demonstrates her culinary prowess with her meat dishes, to me she demonstrates her bigness of heart with her vegetarian dishes. At my debut Darjeeling Express event this past summer I sat next to a vegetarian, who was presented with this special platter below. She was taken aback by the generous spread, and said to Asma "Oh gosh you didn't have to do this, I would have been ok to just eat more of the vegetable dishes already on your menu."
To which Asma replied, "Nonsense, my dear. Our cuisine is so deep, so wide, so varied. Of course we can take care of you."
I didn't have to taste her vegetables to be impressed.
That said, her paneer with cashews was pretty kickass.
As is her tender and gently spiced cauliflower. I have deep admiration for anyone who can make cauliflower interesting without adding the obvious and overdone cheese-and-bacon combination to it.
Many Indian desserts are some rendition of milk-and-so-much-sugar-it-hurts-my-teeth. So I really enjoy Darjeeling Express's fruit chaat - a very lively light fruit salad laced with jaggery (raw brown sugar) and tamarind. Perfect after a typical Darjeeling Express avalanche of rice, breads and proteins.
After a very successful summer debut at The Supperclub Summit at London's Goethe Institut and our very own Sunday Feasts series, Darjeeling Express is upping the ante this winter. Friends and fans of Asma's food are rallying around her to dream up and execute new exciting events, like Indian food and wine pairing events, and Indian food-themed walking tours followed by a soul-warming supper.
So come aboard the Darjeeling Express, and discover a few new spice routes right here in London.
Disclosure: I'm the founder of Edible Experiences, and provide event ticketing services for Darjeeling Express. I've attended 1 Darjeeling Express event as Asma's guest and another as a paying guest.
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