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Food ramble

A framble?

Loyal readers* will remember this excerpt from my article on November 17:

Usually when I go out to eat, I want to:

  • Order a bunch of plates to share
  • Get my hands dirty
  • Sweat profusely from the spice
  • Not feel out of place in trainers
  • Talk at length about the meal
  • Drink quite a lot, affordably

I also gave a short list of eateries that cater (sorry) to my simple needs and provide delicious, delicious food. Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express is now on that list.

The first thing I learned about Asma was that on the restaurant’s launch night, she fed 300 vulnerable local people rather than “round-bottomed food critics” such as Grace Dent – Dent’s own words, not mine. Was it a good PR move? Well, yes. Was it also a kind and generous gesture with real benefit to the recipients, and a genuine reflection of Asma’s giving nature, despite the former cynical observation? Also yes.

I turned a year older on the weekend and I think I’m becoming soft. Shite.

We managed to get a lunchtime reservation on a second try. Our first attempt was a fruitless, foolish same-day request, but Asma encouraged my mother to message her directly on Instagram with a new date. And so she did. When the day finally came around, I walked in to find mum laughing and nattering away to Asma herself. Though they had just met, they conversed with the ease, warmth, and familiarity of old friends. Watching Asma chatting to her staff and making rounds of the restaurant, it’s clear that she that she just has that effect on people.

Here are just some of the ways that people have described Asma in interviews and reviews:

  • Unreservedly authentic
  • Formidably intelligent
  • Gregarious
  • Intensely curious
  • Enthusiastic
  • A force of nature
  • Funny
  • Philanthropic
  • Unstoppable

An enviable list of accolades. The praise for her recipes and cooking is equally impressive and rounded.

According to their website, the menu at Darjeeling Express changes every 8 weeks “to reflect the seasonality of vegetables from our organic British producers.” I’m a serious carnivore, although I sometimes have a niggling doubt… And that doubtful part of me should probably point out that as of this month, the restaurant offers a Meat-Free Monday menu.

We went on a Saturday.

As starters, we chose:

  • Tangra chilli prawns – Calcutta is the only city in India with a Chinatown (Tangra) & these prawns are infused with all the Indo-Chinese flavours of the region
  • Mutton shikampuri kabab – Aromatic spiced & minced mutton cakes stuffed with a thin layer of hung yoghurt & chopped mint leaves
  • Vegetarian puchkas – Wheat & semolina shells filled with spiced black chickpeas, potatoes & tamarind water

Our selection of mains comprised:

  • Makhana paneer – Indian cheese in a creamy nut base gravy with peanuts, lotus seeds & almonds
  • Venison kofta – Venison meatballs cooked with shikar masala (hunting spices) & served in a creamy tomato & chili sauce
  • Goat kosha mangsho – Slow cooked Bengali goat curry with the occasional potato

Accompanied by a few sides…

  • Hyderabadi tamarind dal – Tangy lentils tempered with dried red chillies & curry leaves
  • Puris – Fried bread
  • Brown basmati rice – Wild rice cooked with onions & cardamom

And as there’s always room for dessert (in the Pegley family at least):

  • Bhapa doi – Benghali steamed yoghurt dessert
  • Gajjar ka halwa – Carrot halwa, garnished with pistachios & served with cream

I couldn’t choose a favourite. The old man thought the prawns were a narrow winner – but for a while, he struggled to answer. For me, the most impressive part of the experience was that the dishes were consistently fantastic – which is so rare. I had a similar experience at Gunpowder (Liverpool Street) – an evening that turned out to be costly, but worth it. We ordered round after round of small plates, and each one seemed to deliver more flavour than the last.

Here’s some relatively crap photos of a modest selection of the mind-blowingly delicious dishes we ordered at Gunpowder (totalling about nine or ten):

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28313701_783409208536899_673734819_n.jpg 28313464_783409168536903_1221074055_n.jpg

Photo credit: my hot date

Whereas Gunpowder was an intense, explosive, exciting evening experience with a long wait, quite a lot of booze before and during the meal, not that much light, and very few, relatively small tables (we bumped knees, sat elbow to elbow with our fellow diners, and knocked over our beer cans – not just because of the content within), walking into the light-filled Darjeeling Express on the top floor of Kingly Court in Soho was wildly different – especially given that we went in the daytime. There was room to breathe and talk and reflect on the food properly, and although we had a time limit on our reservation, we didn’t feel rushed. The experience seemed to reflect Asma’s whole MO. “My clients come to eat, and they stay,” she remarked to us – a fact which can make life at Darjeeling Express very hectic when they have tight reservation schedules.

But onto the food.

The prawns were… Prawny. I mean this in a good way. Each one was juicy and firm. They were drenched in flavour, but the gentle taste of the prawn itself was still very much present in every mouthful. This doesn’t always happen in restaurants. Although it may look like a prawn, act like a prawn, and come prepared as a prawn ‘should’, the lack of flavour and succulence can sometimes make me question if it is actually a prawn, or just a miscellaneous semi-chewy thing. The prawns (OK – last time) were accompanied by a single, dark, dried chilli. We split it between the three of us. Boring people gawp at me when I eat, and tell me it’s a miracle that I can taste anything at all given how much spicy stuff I pile on to everything – to which I roll my eyes. Naturally, I didn’t think a third of a dried chilli would be enough. It was. The flavour was smoky, almost burnt – and it was hot. Probably too hot for most people – but perhaps I’m underestimating the general British public (forgive me if my expectations are low #brexit).

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Tangra chilli prawns. Photo credit: asma-khan.com

The mutton shikampuri kabab made me “Mmmmm…” instinctively on the first bite.  Although the phrase ‘mutton cake’ didn’t necessarily  conjure up associations of fresh flavours and a light texture when I read it on the menu, the reality delivered. The little patties were presented simply and invitingly. Each mouthful was meaty, fragrant and fresh all at once – helped by the chopped mint. The light consistency combined with the intense but gentle seasoning had me reeling. And the puchkas had the same effect. The array of flavours and textures and worked perfectly: the crunch of the thin but sturdy shell, the warmth of the spices in the soft potato and chickpea mix nestled inside, and the refreshingly cold and zesty tamarind water. The second puchka retained its crunch even though I took too long between pouring in the tamarind water and popping the whole thing into my mouth, on account of still using my jaw to rave about the first one. Puchkas may be a common snack in India, but this part of the starter was a novelty for all three of us.

Asma cleared our plates, and returned our beaming smiles.

The mains arrived promptly. (By the way, if you’re waiting for a punchline during which I reveal the ‘but’ of the whole experience – it’s not coming. Seriously). There was a distinctive flavour to the meat itself in both the goat and venison dishes. And the accompanying sauces were each unforgettable. Some of the spice combinations warmed both my belly and my heart – the goat kosha mangsho (pictured below, in the middle) tasted remarkably similar to certain preparations of Indonesian rendang (a favourite of mine, especially when cooked by my mum). But the seasoning was blended in such a way that no one spice or flavour was so overwhelming or dominant that I could have picked it out for identification (not that I am an expert in the flavours of the royal Mughlai and Nawabi school of cuisine of Asma’s ancestry, nor the street food flavours of Calcutta where she was born and raised. Maybe one day).


The main course

I’ll move on to the paneer dish (pictured above, bottom left), which may have been my favourite after all. The cheese itself was smooth but definitely had some body – an intriguing and luxurious combination which, when combined with the rich flavours of the sauce, made it near impossible to stop spooning onto my plate. I tend to order some variation of paneer when I go out for Indian food (which isn’t infrequently) – but I’ve never had it like this, not even on a trip to Kerala in December. Paneer has a gentle taste and is used as a vehicle for other flavours – much like some preparations of tofu in Indonesian cooking. The chunks in this instance were a good size – not so small that they got lost in the thick sauce, and not so big that they dominated the dish or left behind that intense flavour. When the bowl arrived at the table it didn’t strike me as particularly large, but it turned out to be the gift that kept on giving. The dal existed as a gentle, warming, and fragrant accompaniment to all of the plates, and there was plenty leftover which we mopped up with the remaining rice and puri.

Wow. I need to get back to work.

Writing or speaking, brevity has never been my forte. But it would be a shame to get this far and not mention the delicious puddings… So I’ll leave a photo below and sign off. But before I go: please do support the restaurant. Besides the food, Asma is an incredible – and incredibly fascinating – individual, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. To learn more about her and keep up with the restaurant’s news, visit the Darjeeling Express blog. There, you’ll find out the reasons that the restaurant’s kitchen team is made up exclusively of women – none of whom has ever been professionally trained. You can also jump to these stories here or here.


Pudding. Left: bhapa doiBenghali steamed yoghurt dessert, and right: gajjar ka halwa – Carrot halwa, garnished with pistachios and served with cream

If anyone from an exciting food brand happens to be reading this (and has actually managed to get this far without keeling over), do get in touch to say hello. And if your brand isn’t exciting – well, maybe we can help you with that. We have some big and wonderful clients at the moment, but none of their products are edible (believe me I’ve tried). And that is a shame.


*Thanks to every single one of you that exists in my head

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