This Indian Chef Only Hires Female Home Cooks
Main image shows Asma Khan with Darjeeling Express chefs Layle Asmat and Asha Pradhan.

This Indian Chef Only Hires Female Home Cooks

London chef Asma Khan opens her first restaurant, Darjeeling Express, in June and has recruited an all-female team of amateur Indian cooks, giving diners a real taste of Bengalese home-cooking.
March 30, 2017, 10:44am

Naan is like, such a male bread.

"It's quick, it takes none of the fine skills. You just slap it on the hot tandoor. Even the idiot eight-year-old boy can make it. It's a male thing. The easy way!"

Asma Khan is telling me this as we roll out dough for puri bread in her Kensington home kitchen.

"They don't have the patience or room to make these," she adds, pointing to the thin, wheaty circles in front of us. "They just slap the dough between their hands. Every other Indian bread is rolled out. Why is naan slapped between the hands? Because men are making it!"

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London-based Khan, who heralds from a Calcutta royal family, is a fully trained constitutional lawyer—but she's also a bloody good cook. After four years of supper clubs and a pop-up at Soho's Sun and 13 Cantons pub, where she served dishes influenced both by her royal upbringing and Calcutta street food, she's about to open a permanent restaurant, Darjeeling Express. And the kitchen will be entirely staffed by women.

"We have women who come into the kitchen because they love food," explains Khan. "For them, this is not work. They sing songs, discuss who's going to bring in what food—"

"It's like therapy!" interjects Asha Pradhan, who's helping to roll the puri with Layle Asmat. Both are Darjeeling Express veterans. Asmat, originally from Bangladesh, works for the NHS by day and met Khan on the school run. Pradhan is a housewife—for now. When Darjeeling Express opens, she'll be working full time for Khan. Which is lucky, as the Darjeeling-born Pradhan is a phenomenal cook.

London chef Asma Khan with a plate of puri bread. All photos by the author.

The women show me how they make dhal puri: puffed up, deep-fried breads, filled with dried lentil curry. Khan explains that this is "really common food in Bangladesh, Calcutta, and Darjeeling—all the eastern places."

She continues: "This is a housewife's dish. It's really frugal. It uses the leftover dhal that's too small to give your family. And in India, keeping things is not an option—even if you had a fridge, power cuts mean that for eight hours there'd be no electricity. And we don't waste anything. So we dry out the cooked dhal and use it."

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RECIPE: Asma Khan's Potato Sabsi

The result is an ochre powder, with the intense smell of a crumbled, currified stock cube.

We smear this on the dough circles and pinch into sealed balls. Pradhan drops them, one at a time, into a saucepan of oil. Almost immediately, the dough starts to inflate like a bread balloon.

"Every time, Asha's puffs up!" Khan exclaims. "Mine, never."

Pea sabsi.

The puffed puris are served with luminous turmeric-yellow potato and pea sabsi, a hyper-spicy Himalayan sauce, and tomato jam. The dish is rarely found homemade in London.

"You have to be crazy to make it at home! But for us, this is the best kind of bread that you can have," says Khan.

Yep: the cloud of crispy, flaky pastry encasing the slick of concentrated dhal is deeply flavoured but ethereally light—the opposite of a thick, pillowy slab of manly naan. "Tandoor was made by Punjabis, in the breadbasket of India, where the men are in the fields and it was a way of cooking outdoors," explains Khan. "In India, no one has a tandoor in their home. If you have a space that big in your kitchen, a relative will move in."

Chicken momos, ready for steaming.

To go with the puri, we also make momos—a type of steamed dumpling. As a child, Khan ran a dumpling shop in Darjeeling, "which is so unique, because to sell momos, you need to make them better than the mum at home or no one will buy anything else from you."

To form the momos, Pradhan pleats the dough around the chicken ("folded like a sari") into perfect crescents. These little parcels are crammed into a metal steamer—not bamboo, as with dim sum—and steamed for five minutes. Cooked, the chewy tug of dough yields to the juiciest steamed chicken, flavoured simply with garlic and ginger. They feel wholesome and healing—a dumpling version of chicken noodle soup to soothe the worst cold or hangover.

Steaming the momos in a metal steamer.

Excellent news, then, that at Darjeeling Express, momos will be available specially for Sunday brunch. During normal service, Khan will serve both Calcutta classics and dishes influenced by all her women's backgrounds: papri chaat (crisp dough topped with chickpeas, potatoes, tamarind sauce, and yogurt), beetroot chops (i.e. croquettes), and curries like the dark, rich kosha mangsho, a goat curry with meat that melts into a slick gravy.

Other Sunday feasts will see Khan's famous dum biryani on the menu, a huge vat of lamb, rice, and potato for a minimum of 30 people to share—and more importantly, something she and women can all make together. These are not shouty, aggressive chefs. These are friends, so close that when Darjeeling opens, Khan plans to pay herself the same wage as everyone else. During the restaurant's previous pop-up, she even ended up scrubbing pots at the sink because the Eastern European kitchen porter made better meat koftes.

Ultimately, Darjeeling Express is about the freedom to do what you're best at and what you love. The clue is in the name, which comes from the train that runs along the foothills of the Himalaya to Darjeeling.

"That feeling of exhilaration, leaving the sweltering heat of Calcutta, when the first breath of cool mountain air hit my face as the train crawled along the mountain edge," remembers Khan. "When the train would go around the edge of the mountain, if you stick your head out, you could not see anything but the horizon. If you called out your name, the mountains echoed your name. I called my company Darjeeling Express as it was for me, liberation, freedom from law, and the start of my food business journey."