Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express at The Sun & 13 Cantons
You have only got 11 days in which you can sample the food I am about to tell you about, so pay close attention, and then book it swiftly. Asma Khan’s food at the Sun & 13 Cantons is some of the best Indian food in London right now, and you have to try it. I have been twice and I will go again before it closes. Twice more if I can.
When Asma moved to London in 1991 from Calcutta, she didn’t know how to cook. She was trained in law, but she missed the food and went back to her ancestral kitchens to learn the royal Mughlai and Nawabi school of cuisine from her father’s side, and the food of Calcutta from her mother’s side (and where she was born and raised). It wasn’t long before Asma started serving her food from her popular supper club at home in Kensington. For the past year she has been in residence at The Sun and 13 Cantons. If you follow me on social media you will have seen my posts from lunch and dinner there (come join! instagram | twitter).
Asma’s food is a joy. There is street food like papri chaat (spiced potato and black chickpeas on a bed of crisp papri dressed with tangy tamarind sauce, garnished with sev). The idea is to pour some of the lovely tamarind dressing on to the potato and chickpea in the crisp shell, and immediately wolf it down. Gorgeous.
Then there are masala fries. Very simple, proper hand cut potato chips spiced with chilli flakes & crushed sea salt. Served with tamarind sauce. The tamarind sauce is the star (and that is from a potato obsessed Irish person). The beetroot chop was a surprise highlight, grated beetroot deep fried in a croquette served with smoked chilli & sesame chutney. So light and spritely. Mutton shikampuri kebab were gorgeous little aromatic spice minced mutton cakes served with yogurt.
For mains, the methi chicken was as perfect a chicken curry as I have ever had. Chicken cooked on the bone, so rich and moist, but served boneless with dried fenugreek leaves & tomato. Goat khosha mangsho, a 6 hour Bengali goat and potato curry was gorgeous, deeply flavoured and cooked in the dry style. On the side, each time, a tamarind dal, lentils tempered with mustard seeds & curry leaves was perfectly balanced and velvet smooth with just the right amount of tart tamarind.
To drink, we had Nimbu Pani, a freshly made lemonade with sugar, a touch of Himalayan sea salt and garnished with fresh mint leaves. I had two, in fact. My friend is a fan of masala chai, and loved Asma’s version, a spiced Indian tea cooked with garam masala & ginger. Dessert of Khoobani ka Meetha, stewed Hunza apricots served with clotted cream and garnished with pistachios was a perfect bright finish.
Over the course of my visits there I have chatted to Asma about her food and her story. She is fascinating, and I hope to share more of Asma’s story via my soon to be launched podcast (Asma has kindly agreed to be a guest). We chatted at length about her village and food culture, and about what it means to be a second daughter there. Asma is a second daughter and most of the women working with her in London are second daughters also, just by chance.
Asma says “The culture in our society is to value boys more than girls and the birth of a second girl is often a cause of sadness rather than celebration in most families, irrespective of the class, caste and background. We send back a large percentage of our profits back to educate girls, particularly the second daughter. We let families know in the villages we support that we will support their baby girl, that she should not be seen as a burden and that one day she will make the family proud and could be the breadwinner of the family, like many of the women working with me at Darjeeling Express.”
It is International Women’s Day and I wanted to shine a light on Asma and her wonderful food, but also her generous and kind spirit and the wonderful women in her kitchen. We should also spare a thought for all of the women worldwide who don’t have our good fortune, our easy access to education, our health service and everything we have that we take for granted, and that we should be fighting to protect. When I think of all of those refugees pushing with all of their might for better lives, I am only ashamed. It must be terrifying.
Asma is an inspiration and her food speaks for itself, you should visit while you still can. Her supper clubs will still be running, although you must be swift to get a spot, and she will also be at Druid St Market during Ramadan.
Darjeeling Express at The Sun & 13 Cantons, 21 Great Pulteney Street, London W1F 9NG