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Meet Asma Khan - London’s Bengali food pop-up evangelist

Meet Asma Khan - London’s Bengali food pop-up evangelist
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Asma Khan was driven by her passion to cook and feed people.

I first met Asma Khan at a pop-up event she had organised at London’s The Cinnamon Club. She had invited me to speak about the food of Kolkata as her pop-up featured the multiple cuisines of the City of Joy.

I remember the afternoon for two reasons. One was, for going up to music composer Biddu and singing ‘Disco Deewane’ and pretending that I had come to audition for him. I had after all grown up with his music. And the other was for the incredible Kolkata biryani and mishti doi that Asma had prepared, which matched up with the best I have had in Kolkata. Except that this was in the heart of London.

I had a chance to catch up with Asma recently to understand what had got this lawyer by training to enter into food pop-ups. I was also keen to know how her endeavour to promote Kolkata food had fared in London. It is, of course, a lot less known than balti chicken and chicken tikka masala.

What transpired was a conversation that unravelled the fascinating story of this new-age Indian food evangelist. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

How did the idea of starting Darjeeling Express spark off?

The first time I realised people would pay to eat something I cooked, was when I lived in Cambridge with my academic husband. The siege of Sarajevo had finally ended in early 1996 and the Cambridge College my husband was a Fellow at, was raising money to equip an ambulance to send to Sarajevo. I made Shingaras (Bengali-style samosas with potatoes) and sold them on the street to raise money. I was very happy to get positive feedback from the South Asian students, who told me it reminded them of home. I had just enrolled to start a law degree that year and the dream of starting a food business was put on the back burner.

Tell us how it all began.

I began Darjeeling Express in April 2012 after I finished my PhD viva in British Constitutional Law. I enjoyed the research and writing my PhD thesis, but I knew I did not want to practice law or teach. My passion was cooking, and nothing gave me as much pleasure as feeding people! My first event was a Supper Club organised in the Goethe Institut during the London Olympics in the summer of 2012 for 55 people. I cooked 17 dishes including Fish Malaikari; the reviews were very good and there was no looking back. I knew I had found my calling.

Were there any challenges that you faced on the way?

I suppose the main challenge was convincing my academic husband that I was not wasting my life cooking. He was very disappointed that I did not use my legal qualification to practice. It helped a lot that my parents, and more importantly, my mother -in-law were very encouraging about my food business plans (having a Bengali mother-in-law on your side is invaluable when it comes to any “discussion” with your husband!). Looking back I think I was very fortunate and faced very few problems starting my business.

What was the kind of support that you received?

I have had amazing support from people in the food business in London. A few names in particular are Chef Vivek Singh of The Cinnamon Club, and Iqbal Wahhab, who founded The Cinnamon Club and Roast Restaurant in Borough Market. I also learnt a lot from Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala of Café Spice Namaste and realised that despite feeling you were wading against the tide of generic Indian food like Tikka Masala, and the oddly named Balti dishes, introducing and promoting regional Indian food was possible. In fact, Cyrus had managed to introduce Parsi food to London through his Khaadraas Club very effectively. Finally, a huge emotional and financial support was from Shamil Thakrar of Dishoom whose family owned Tilda rice when I began my business. Shamil would send me a lot of free rice and he was always willing to give advice.

How easy or difficult is it to source ingredients to cook Bengali food?

Thanks to the large Bangladeshi community settled in East London, finding Bengali ingredients is not difficult. My favourite store is Taj Stores in Brick Lane, where you can buy everything from Ilish maach to fresh Lal Saag. The only spice I prefer to buy from Calcutta is Paanch Phoron because I always feel the mix of seeds is not right in the UK packaged bags.

What are some of your most popular dishes?

Dum Biryani is my most popular dish followed closely by Prawn Malaikari and Chicken Chaap.

How have you grown since your initial days of starting Darjeeling Express?

The business has grown organically. I have not really planned things in advance, and have never worked with a business plan. I have been very fortunate and have got some big breaks and opportunities like the pop-up at the prestigious Cinnamon Club, and cooking Calcutta Chicken Chaap with Loyd Grossman for a US-based online TV. In a couple of weeks, I will be on BBC2 judging a competition for a restaurant reality show. I am very active on social media and I post a lot of food pictures, which I think has helped a lot in spreading awareness about my business.

Do you have any memorable incidents from the pop-ups?

The pop-up at The Cinnamon Club in 2013 was one of my most memorable events. I wanted to present the unique food heritage of Kolkata, and had tried to incorporate different cultural food influences in the menu. It is sometimes stressful when you're cooking and serving guests, but most of them who were my supper club regulars that afternoon were given a great presentation of the distinction between Mughlai Kolkata food and Hindu Bengali food by Kalyan Karmakar. Many still remember that talk!

How have the Brits and non-Kolkatan Indians reacted to these pop-ups?

The feedback has always been positive. Even before I began my food business, I would cook for a lot of Europeans (mainly French), who were my neighbours and friends. I was always pleasantly surprised to see how happy they were to try Phuchkas, and one of the favourite dishes of my guests was Niramish (a Bengali-style of cooking mixed vegetables). Next week, I am cooking for a large family gathering of an Italian family and the first request was for luchi and Niramish. We underestimate the beauty of Bengali food I think. The simplicity of spices and lack of heavy cream and ghee makes it very attractive for people from different cultures. Non-Kolkatans have been equally supportive and can recognise the difference in the flavours and spices of Bengal.

What does the future look like?

My plan is to open a Calcutta cuisine café in London.

The quintessential Bengali tomato chutney. The quintessential Bengali tomato chutney.

Recipe for Bengali Tomato Chutney with Paanch Phoron (serves 2 to 4 member house)

Ingredients:

½ tsp paanch phoron or five spice seeds

500 gms Fresh tomatoes chopped

4 dried apricots (any alternative dried fruit can be used)

3 dried prunes (raisins are an alternative)

80 gms white granulated sugar

1 tsp salt

6 cloves of garlic

1 inch ginger

2 whole dried red chillies

2 tbsp vegetable oil

Method

1. Heat the oil on medium to high heat.

2. Add the dried red chillies. Put the paanch phoron and stir till the mustard seeds pop.

3. Now add the tomatoes, salt and sugar. Keep the pot open and let the tomatoes reduce.

4. After 10 minutes, add the chopped dried apricots and prunes. Let the chutney reduce till glossy.

5. Add fresh green chillies (optional) towards the end.

Photo credit: Asma Khan

Kalyan Karmakar

Kalyan Karmakar

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