When Londoners Fell In Love With Indian Cuisine
Straight from the hearth
Carnaby Street in London is the hallmark of hectic style, festooned with tourists searching for a buzzing vibe. On the third floor of Kingly Court is located Asma Khan’s restaurant, Darjeeling Express. (Turns out, she is a childhood friend from La Martiniere for Girls in Kolkata, who I met by chance again in life while wanting to write about her restaurant….)
Darjeeling Express has no trained chefs and is run by an all-women team, all of whom learnt cooking from their mothers and grandmothers at home. Asma’s food is as heartwarming as meeting her again after more than three decades proved to be. Ambitious, talented and philanthropic, she has boldly mapped out her own journey. The brightly lit restaurant serves Mughlai Calcutta cuisine. The wonderful thing is that at their launch party they fed 300 local vulnerable people rather than fancy food critics.
The menu comprises of dishes like Tangra (Chinatown in Kolkata) chilli garlic prawns (a spicy Asian take on the traditional Spanish dish gambas al ajillo), mutton shikampuri kabab, Calcutta puchkas, goat kosha mangsho (slow-cooked Bengali goat curry with the occasional potato), prawn malaikari (traditional Bengali speciality of lightly spiced tiger prawns cooked in coconut milk) and the traditionally delicious Bengali aloo dum and puri. For dessert, gajjar ka halwa, Hyderabadi khoobani ka meetha and bhapa doi (Bengali steamed yoghurt) leave you craving for more. No wonder Londoners are queuing up for repeat visits.
Excerpts from a chat with Asma Khan….
What inspired you to open an Indian restaurant in London? What is the reason behind naming it Darjeeling Express?
I began my food business journey from home. I invested 50 pounds in a large pot and the rest of the equipment I already had. It was a simple start with a supper club for 12 people sitting around my dining table. The supper clubs expanded in number of guests and frequency till my family objected to the disruption they were causing them! I moved my business to a temporary kitchen and a pop-up. But I soon realised that a restaurant was the only way I could cook in peace and also provide a permanent job for the women who worked with me from my supper-club days. I named the supper clubs Darjeeling Express after the ‘toy train’ that went to our family home in Kurseong in the Himalayan foothills. I wanted my happy childhood memories and the feeling of exhilaration and freedom to reflect in my business. My food journey has been all of that!
You have an all-women’s team of chefs in your kitchen. Would you always want to continue with that in your future endeavours?
I do not see the concept of the women-only kitchen changing. We have a great full-time team and there are those who work part-time for us who would be happy to join us if we need more people.
Which charity do you support?
The charity that we are in the process of setting up in the UK, and that we will be giving away a portion of our profits to, is Second Daughters. Our aim is to celebrate the birth of a second girl by paying for sweets, fireworks and clothes for the family – a traditional Indian way of celebrating a birth in India. Sadly, often the birth of a second girl is mourned rather than celebrated as the male child is coveted in our culture. We will also pay for the education of second daughters in Kurseong where my family has a home.
You are talked about as one of the few iconic women changing the face of women entrepreneurship in the hospitality industry. Who do you admire in your field and what is your next endeavour?
I admire Madhur Jaffrey who was on British television a couple of decades ago. With her lovely Indian accent and no-nonsense recipes she demystified Indian cooking. She was a self-taught cook and I loved the casual way she wore the sari while cooking! Currently the woman I admire on the Indian food scene is Maunika Gowardhan who is based in the north of England. She has written a cookbook, teaches cooking and is on TV. She recently launched a recipe app with food and travel tips. Ravinder Bhogal is the other person that I admire. Her restaurant Jikoni is a year old and combines her Kenyan, Indian and British heritage – not everyone gets fusion right when working with spices – Ravinder has managed to master it. My next endeavour is not to open another restaurant – I do not work under the pressures that other investor-driven restaurants do when it comes to expanding! I would like to do something with food production/packaging and use that business to mentor and train more women.
A fusion of flavours
London is a global culinary hub where you can sample the finest of any type of cuisine. Indian Accent was voted as one of the top five restaurants in New York and has now opened its doors in Albemarle Street in Mayfair. The restaurant serves traditional Indian food with a contemporary twist of modern influences. Like a magician, Chef Manish Mehrotra continues to conjure up and enchant a hungry crowd that is always craving something new. Rohit Khattar has conceptualised all three stylish restaurants in New Delhi, New York and London, consistently offering good-quality cuisine with an emphasis on affordability. Each venue has its own unique allure with the goal of giving guests an exemplary experience. The New Delhi restaurant at The Lodhi Hotel was voted number one three years in a row in India and is the only restaurant from India to feature on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list.
The restaurant is welcoming with warm lighting, silvery walls and discerningly spaced tables that invite soft conversations. A spiral staircase transports you to a lower-level private room that can host intimate groups of 25.
Indian cuisine, like the country, is both expansive and diverse. Reading the menu with dishes such as Kashmiri morel with walnut powder and parmesan papad and beet and peanut butter vadai with goat’s cheese pachadi heightens the senses. And though teleportation devices have still not been invented and no one can ‘beam up’ Star Trek style, one gets the feeling of an extrasensory dining experience even before the food is ordered. The menu offers many dining options but for first-timers, the chef’s tasting menu offers samplers of varied dishes with innovative ingredients to excite the palate. Chef Mehrotra knows how to give you the slow burn with small bites that leave you asking for more.
The show starts with mini puchkas (with five different types of flavoured water) that refreshingly burst in your mouth, followed by signature dishes such as soya kheema quail egg lime leaf butter pao or baked cod Amritsari mint boondi and langoustines French beans moilee. At intervals sipping a cold nimboo pani chuski (sweetened lemon water) cleanses the palate while offering the perfect break. The climax concludes with paper dosa mushrooms with water chestnuts, winter vegetables sarson ka saag fenugreek tart, chicken kofta, Punjabi kadhi onion pakora and ghee-roasted lamb with roomali roti pancakes and condiments. The latter being an imaginative take on the classic Peking duck dish from China. Accompaniments such as the mouthwatering dairy black dal, wasabi cucumber raita and warm kulchas (like mini naans) stuffed with tantalising blue cheese, British black pudding, smoked bacon, wild mushrooms or butter chicken complete the meal. Recommended fine wines can be paired with each course and whisky flights can be mixed and matched to enhance the flavours. For sweet indulgences, the mishti doi cannoli with the sweet amarnath makes the perfect eye candy as it’s crisp, soft and sweet; and the makhan malai with saffron milk, rose petal jaggery brittle and almonds is dazzlingly rich and delicious.
Excerpts from an interaction with Chef Manish Mehrotra….
From Delhi to New York to London…how would you describe the journey of Indian Accent?We started Indian Accent nine years ago with an intention to serve a unique and inventive Indian cuisine. During the initial stages, it was extremely challenging to reach out to people as it was not the regular Indian food that we were offering. It was not a traditional butter-chicken-and-naan restaurant. It took us a long time and a lot of hard work. Slowly and gradually the word of mouth spread. Once we had established ourselves, we decided to take Indian Accent to New York in 2016. New York was a new challenge. It was an altogether different market from India. We did several trials to get first-hand experience and knowledge of the market before we formally opened to the public. A lot of new dishes were introduced based on the local palate, seasons and availability of ingredients. Late last year, we opened Indian Accent in Mayfair, London, which is again a different market. But since we have had the experience of running restaurants in London earlier, we understand it better. Also, the guests understand Indian food well in London.
And in both New York and London we customise the ingredients of the dishes depending on the seasonal and local produce. But our spices and the flavours are exactly same as that of the original Indian Accent in Delhi.
How would you say Indian Accent is distinct from the other eateries focusing on Indian food in London?
We do not offer traditional Indian food like biryani, chicken tikka masala and more. Ours is inventive Indian cuisine. Our menu features Indian food with a unique marriage of global ingredients and techniques while retaining the flavours and traditions of India.
Given the name of your restaurants — Indian Accent — which are the states that have inspired your food?
Our food is inspired from every part of India.
If you were to pick one signature dish from the menu, which one would it be?
Our all-time loved dish is the warm doda burfi treacle tart served with homemade vanilla bean ice cream.