Update: Darjeeling Express ran its course – to great acclaim. Asma now runs regular pop ups in Central London.
Big hug. Huge smile. Silent yet piercing visual inquisition.
“You’ve lost weight … thank God”
Asma Khan and my mum have a lot in common. There’s the hand wringing over the fact I’m still not married or mortgaged. There’s the blunt concern over the fluctuating size of my love handles. And there’s also the paradox that that outward concern about blubber is always followed by copious amounts of food. But then it appears Asma has something in common with many Mums. Well, 350 million at least. Because she cooks food that makes Indian nationals yearn for home.
I’ve seen Vivek Singh stand, unprompted and misty eyed in front of a room of 60, and announce that Asma’s mutton biryani was the closest to that of his childhood (and therefore the best he’d eaten in Britain). As he stood, an army of chefs in the Cinnamon Club kitchen were piling into seconds and thirds of her food – because it reminded them of mamta. Many of them asked for doggy bags. And of course Asma had enough to feed them.
I mention all this because if you want to try some of the most authentic Indian home cooking outside of the sub-continent, you ought to visit Asma’s residency at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. She’s there until 11 April. Unfortunately the aforementioned biryani isn’t on the menu. But highlights of my lunch today include a superb black chickpea kala channa – which was nutty and savoury and way more interesting than the yellow chickpeas I’m used to. The channa came with hand made puri (deep fried unleavened bread that puffs into a ball), and laced with excellent tamarind and chilli chutney left over from some snacks at the start. A sprinkling of sev would have made it a complete dish. I shared a chicken chaap too (similar to but better than a korma) though I’ll try the prawn malaiker with rice next time. Dishes come with flakey fresh parathas, fragrant pulau … you get the idea.
Go as a table of 2-4, share a few mains and start with some snacks too – the mixed snack plate (onion fritters, beef samosas and spicy potato patties) is super good; apparently the masala fries are killer. It’s mostly a lunch thing, though food gets served (and particularly those snacks) through to early evening – I can’t think of a better accompaniment to an end of working week ale.
Bear in mind this ain’t Gymkhana. Rather, it’s cheep, cheerful, refreshingly unpolished, and mostly about food from the heart, for the soul (and your love handles).
Darjeeling Express pop-up in 3 words
Treats from Calcutta.
£6.50-8.50 for mains. Share some snacks too – at about £2.50 pp.
darjeeling-express.com – 21 Great Pulteney St, W1F 9NG – until 11 April