My friends know that all I really want to do is run my own restaurant. I’d love to say it was something I’ve wanted since the day I ate my first butter naan, or the first time I was taken to a restaurant as a child. It wasn’t. And to be honest, I cannot recall the first time I decided that one day I will spend the rest of my days working 24/7, having swapped my enviable shoe collection for… ugh, flats.
I’ve put forward every excuse – no money, no location, no help, no time; except the real one: no inspiration. I could not bring myself to commit to my dream because I had not yet tasted food that I would be proud to serve. There was fear that I would never find the food that would make my heart sing.
That is, until I was fed by Asma Khan. We share a hometown (Hyderabad), a love for Bollywood, and an unconditional passion for authentic flavours. Asma too has a desire to turn this passion into a life of working 24/7, swapping her brocade kurtas for kitchen whites.
But she wasn’t always the fantastic cook she is today. It is safe to say that when Asma moved to the UK in 1991, as the good wife of a Cambridge scholar, she could not even boil an egg. She spent her first two years in the country eating salad and her husband’s chicken curry. In her own words “life was not worth living.” In 1993 Asma travelled back to India to spend time in her ancestral kitchens, and over the course of a few months mastered recipes that have been in her family for four generations. She came back to being a wife and mum and along the way got a PhD in Law. It wasn’t until April of 2012 that Asma decided to turn food into a career. Somewhere in these last two decades, a skill learnt out of desperation turned into an obsession. Asma became Darjeeling Express and made her debut at London’s Supper Club Summit.
When Asma asked me if I would take charge of her Front of House I squealed a massive “YES!” Having tasted Asma’s glorious food on more than one occasion I was honoured to be part of a team that would bring such joy to 55 lucky guests; and thrilled that I got to play restaurant for a day. This is what we served:
CHICKEN TENGRI KABAB
KEEMA KA SAMOSA
CALCUTTA CHAAT SELECTION
BENGALI FISH MALAI CURRY
BAIGAN KA BHARTA
HYDERABADI MIRCHI KA SALAAN
PEAS PALLAU, LEMON RICE & ROGNI ROTI
CHUTNEY: TOMATO, APRICOT, PRUNES AND DATE
GAJJAR KA HALWA
Every dish on the menu comes with a story. For instance, the haleem recipe belongs to Ali Miyaan who used to cook for Hyderabad’s Nizam family. The samosas were learnt by Asma out of pure desperation. (Shocked at what passed off for a samosa in the UK she would not drink another cup of chai without a proper samosa.) And she learnt that the secret of proper chaat is in its tamarind chutney. Asma went back to her school in Calcutta and and bullied chaatwalla Subodh into teaching her the tricks to a perfect tamarind sauce (he still serves students mouthwatering puchkas!).
Waitressing isn’t exactly new to me. But serving a few dishes to a bunch of tables is nothing compared to what it took five of us to synchronise the service of 15 dishes to 55 people. Having been a diner at other supper clubs I knew that the manner of a guest at a supper club is different from when they visit restaurants. They are more patient to start with, which was a relief because none of us anticipated the trauma of plating up 55 portions of chaat and dessert in under ten minutes! They also had a lot more questions about the food as some of these dishes they had never seen at any one of London’s hundreds of Indian restaurants.
The tiny kitchen was a hive of activity for the four hours that the meal lasted. We saw every drama from breaking dishes and moody waitresses, to running out of clean spoons and a grumpy potwasher. And just as we thought we had everything under control, along came the “last minute vegetarians”. Thankfully, the spirit in the dining room was completely the opposite. Old school friends chose the supper club as a venue for their reunion, and new lovers celebrated a birthday. Happy diners didn’t seem to notice the gap between courses as they licked their plates clean, waiting patiently for more.
The super hit dish of the night was the Bengali fish malai curry. Traditionally, this dish is made with prawns and only at celebrations. Tonight was a celebration of sorts and the chef was allowed to take a few liberties!
At about 11pm I realised that I had not had a sip of water or a bite to eat since lunch that day; that my feet had blisters and I had cuts on both my hands from heavens knows what; that I had washed more dishes than I ever intend to for the rest of my life. At about 11pm, I also realised that I had not been this happy in years; and couldn’t wait to do it again!
I have eaten and served food that makes my heart sing. And just like that, my dream isn’t scary anymore.
All the photographs are courtesy dashing supper club guest Christopher Goh.
Take yourself to Asma’s next supper club here.