Taking a journey on the Darjeeling Express. Making a difference.
It’s not often that I meet someone who can out-talk me but Asma Khan is that woman. I’m very glad that she is, however, because I have come to Soho to interview her, during the temporary residency for her erstwhile supper club, The Darjeeling Express, at The Sun and Thirteen Cantons in Soho.
I’ve eaten at Darjeeling Express on another occasion, when the sound of banging beats from the pub threatened to drown out all conversation. Asma looked at my face. Don’t worry, she said, I’ll sit you at the back. Her concern was genuine and it lasted throughout the meal, as we were brought plate upon plate of beautifully prepared food, Asma apologising for the (non-existent) delays. It’s the sort of food I could happily live on.
But we got to chatting and she mentioned that she was paid the same as the kitchen staff and that some of the profit from the restaurant goes to charitable causes in Darjeeling. Not entirely the result of wine, my companion and I both started to get wobbly lip. At that point I heard myself asking Asma if I could interview her and she graciously agreed.
I was wondering about the name, which, when I first heard it, made me think that this might be a takeaway. In fact it’s the name of a train, the one Asma used to take as a child, the one taking her from the foothills of the Himalayas into the mountains and the cool air, the one where, at one point, her father allowed her to wear her beloved jeans. It’s where she felt the most free.
She’d done a PhD, been a mother and a wife but this is the first time she had done something for herself and the liberation of that brought her right back to the liberation of that train and that sense of freedom. “I’ve always been something else“, she says, “I’ve never been what I want to be, and this is what I want to be”.
She knew she wanted to do something in food and connected to other food people on social media because the only other people she knew at that time were lawyers and academics. A chance meeting with a German hosting a “supperclub summit” led to an invitation to do an Indian supperclub. “It will be great” he said, “you can do it”. She said yes, without thinking not even knowing what a supperclub actually was.
It was to be at the German Institute in Exhibition Road, daunting for anyone. The minimum number to make it viable was twenty-five and she was worried there wouldn’t be enough people. As it was, fifty-five people booked.
And she managed, because she had been cooking for a while, if not in restaurant scenario. It had started small. Selling samosas to raise money for ambulances in Sarajevo, she was amazed that people wanted to buy her food. Assuming that it was the charity angle, she didn’t quite believe that they were buying the food because they actually really liked it.
She started to realise that there was a market for authentic Indian food, even in Cambridge. For five years she cooked for free and she believes it is this that gave her the confidence to make the leap to a large supperclub; people are gentler and more forgiving when it’s charitable, she says, and it allows you to make mistakes without losing your nerve.
The charitable thread runs throughout Asma’s life and when she made food for the homeless she suddenly knew what she wanted to do. “I knew I could make people happy with food” she says and this need to feed and nurture is what underpins her cooking at Darjeeling Express.
I ask about the transition from supperclub to restaurant – “very painful” she says, “sometimes we run out of food. All I have in my freezer is Haagen Dazs, we prepare fresh every day and when it’s gone it’s gone.” People come from all over, having read about it in the FT, or wanting specific dishes that they’ve seen on Instagram or Twitter and sometimes they’re disappointed. We’ll eat whatever you have, they say, understanding that this isn’t a traditional restaurant experience, no doubt disarmed by Asma’s openness and honesty.
I ask about the women behind the scenes, in the kitchen. “We’re all second daughters” she says, “all of us“.The youngest in her early 40s and the oldest in her late 60s. There’s something about a second daughter, especially in India, when the family want a son; according to Asma it’s seen as a tragedy. Those daughters have to work much harder to be relevant and valued. We talk about second daughters in families and how they often end up being the glue that holds families together.
Some of the women who work with her had never previously left what she calls the Indian Ghetto, it’s been a journey for them too, as they find their independence and a sort of sisterhood in a Soho kitchen. Now we really feel like we live in London, they said, after witnessing the gay parade.
Asma doesn’t know how much money she has made. Much of it goes back to Darjeeling, she says, particularly to women. Lots of it has gone into women-led start-ups in India, or sending kids to school.
I ask Asma where her charitable drive comes from and for once she doesn’t really have an immediate answer. It makes her happy, she says, more than a new handbag ever would. In the end it’s her mother, she says, her mother who helped women abandoned by their husbands, saving them from prostitution and training them as cooks. She doesn’t immediately make the connection but it’s a clear one. Her mother helped women, Asma helps women. As she says, the road she’s on now is the same one her mother took.
The next stage is a permanent restaurant, staffed by women in a sort of socialist set-up, where everyone is paid the same. It’s a fascinating approach and one different to any model I’ve come across, but if anyone can pull it off, Asma can. She’s looking to crowdfund but doesn’t want traditional investors, instead she’d like true partners, ones who share her vision and can get involved in a meaningful way, giving advice and support and the more women investors the better.
Touching people’s lives, particularly women’s lives. It sounds like a cliché but it’s true. She’s experienced at first hand discrimination and hardship many of us would find difficult to imagine. In her own way, Asma is creating a different world, one where Muslims Hindus and Jews work some by side, where work is a way to gain independence and become a part of something bigger.
When the Hindu women on her staff worked through the festival of Diwali, Asma apologised to one of them for keeping her away from her grandchildren. “No”, she said, “you are my Lakshmi, (the Hindu goddess of fortune), and this kitchen? This kitchen is my temple”.
I’m not surprised. Asma is charismatic, warm and passionate. She wants to make a difference and with Darjeeling Express she is changing people’s lives.
It isn’t necessary to know the backstory to enjoy the food here – you’ll enjoy it anyway, because it’s excellent – but knowing you’re doing a bit of good as well, well it does make it taste that little bit better.