London darling Asma Khan’s flagship restaurant: Darjeeling Express
I had the amazing opportunity to eat at Asma Khan’s famed restaurant in London, Darjeeling Express. This home away from home is modestly tucked away on the second floor of I’m the Soho district on Kingly Street.
The Calcutta native skyrocketed to fame after appearing on the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.” Usually the waiting list is over a year(!) long but as I called for a last minute reservation I was lucky enough to speak on the phone with Adam* who is originally from Los Angeles and at the time was Khan’s trusted assistant. He landed us a table for 3, and I went to eat with a good friend of mine from South Africa and another local foodie friend who lived in London. The only reason why I was eating there at all was because I had missed my flight that morning! Luckily enough…
We ordered the famous Puchkas, wheat & semolina shells filled with spiced black chickpeas, potatoes and tamarind water. This was a veritable experience – you pour the tamarind water into the little crispy shells and pop the whole thing in your mouth – like having a cocktail and a canape all in one. The sweet and tangy tamarind liquid cooled the mouth while the rich flavors of the chickpeas and texture cut through this culinary waterfall.
Another popular mainstay of the mainstay which we tried was the shikampuri kabab, spiced minced mutton cakes stuffed with a thin layer of yogurt and mint. It was just beyond words. We also ordered a seasonal chicken curry and vegetarian squash dish as well to round out the meal.
The flavors overall were phenomenal, sharp and sweet, spicy, a revelation. It was family cooking elevated to a fine affair. The meal was divine, but the entire experience was about something more – it was a living heritage to one woman’s journey to a foreign land.
As an immigrant to the UK, Khan was homesick and longed for food from her native India. What begin as home dinner parties morphed into the juggernaut restaurant of today, landing the distinction of the top 15 restaurants in London by the Evening Standard in 2015.
Khan draws her inspiration for her dishes with cuisine from her hometown. Celebrated as an international advocate for women entrepreneurs, her 100% female staff are not professional chefs, but passionate home cooks who were trained by Khan herself.
From the moment we walked in, the service, care and attention by the staff was extraordinary. It was like stepping into her private living room. Khan herself arrived about an hour after service began, and she was very unassuming and humble as she visited with her guests. When she came to speak with us, it was as if she’s known us forever. As a restaurateur myself, Graze, California Cuisine in the French Riviera, we discussed the difficulties of opening a restaurant, and about the public attitude toward vegan and vegetarian fare.
During the Covid-19 quarantine, Khan and her staff volunteered their time and resources to prepare meals for various organizations in the local neighborhood.
She has decided not to re-open her Soho location and is currently looking for a new site to continue her legacy of home-cooked fare. Until then, you can try her delectable recipes from her new cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen,which is now available for purchase on Amazon. I would also highly suggest watching the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” which documents the amazing tale of how she came to open Darjeeling Express and created a feeling of home and tradition in a foreign land.
Asma Khan’s restaurant: https://www.darjeeling-express.com/
*name changed to preserve anonymity.