Self-taught cook Asma Khan combines the north Indian traditions from her father and mother’s Bengali heritage to create a whole host of authentic dishes, and serves them as large sharing platters, replicating the old-fashioned dawaat (feasts) that her family enjoyed.
In her first restaurant, Darjeeling Express in London’s Soho area, the whole kitchen is run by south Asian housewives, where most of them began working with Khan as part time assistants when she started her food business four years ago. None of them have had any professional training – including Khan. And up until the Darjeeling Express residency from 2015-2016, most of the women had never worked in a professional kitchen.
Khan herself didn’t even know how to boil an egg when she moved from Kolkata to the UK in 1991. But after learning her family recipes that had been passed down through four generations, she put them to use after finishing her PhD in British constitutional law in 2012, and following in her mother’s footsteps, started her own food business.
The interior has been designed with Indian heritage in mind, with brass, concrete tables, terracotta tones, plenty of hanging greenery and pictures of her 1920s-style family home.
Here are some of our favourite recipes from Khan’s kitchen.
200g red lentils (masur dal)
4 tbsp oil
6 cloves of garlic
700ml hot water
6 curry leaves (optional)
4 dried red chillies
¼ tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp tamarind chutney (if using tamarind concentrate use it very sparingly)
Wash the lentils in cold water and leave them to soak in water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Finely chop four cloves of garlic. Slice the remaining two cloves of garlic into thick slices for the garnish.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pot and add the four cloves of garlic and two dried red chillies followed immediately with the washed drained lentils, lower the heat and slowly fry the lentils in the garlic and red chillies-infused oil. After 5 minutes add the turmeric and a generous pinch of salt.
Keep frying the dal on low/medium heat until the raw smell of the turmeric is gone (usually another 5 minutes). Add the hot water and increase the heat to full. Once the lentils are boiling, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Open the pot and use the back of a wooden spoon to break down some of the lentils. Add the tomato purée, tamarind and salt. Taste the dal and adjust the seasoning.
The final stage is the tempering of the dal. In a new pan add the remaining two tablespoons of oil and heat on medium/high; add 2 dried red chillies followed by the sliced garlic and the curry leaves. Do not let the garlic burn! Pour the infused oil for tempering (called tarka or baghaar in my family) onto the lentils. The dal can be made in advance and reheated if necessary.
Cooking time: 20 minutes
500g uncooked tiger prawns
½ tsp turmeric
4 dried red chillies
4 cloves garlic paste
½ inch ginger crushed to a paste
1 medium onion finely chopped or made into a paste (if you have a food processor you can make the ginger, onion and garlic paste together)
3 tsp of ghee
1 tsp salt (adjust to your taste)
Mix the prawns with ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder and a large pinch of salt for 5 minutes. Heat the ghee and flash-fry the prawns, remove from the heat and keep on a plate.
Add the dried red chillies followed by the onion, ginger and garlic paste. Add the remaining turmeric. Fry the paste on medium high heat till the raw smell of the turmeric and the paste has gone (5 minutes), add sprays of cold water if the paste is getting stuck.
Return the prawns to the pan and continue to fry so the onion, ginger and garlic paste coats the prawns. Taste the seasoning and adjust. Cooking prawns perfectly comes with experience. Overcooking will make the prawns hard so keep a close eye on them and no not cook for more than 10 minutes.
This raita has the most gorgeous colour! The manual grating of beetroot can be a messy affair. If you want to avoid wiping beetroot juice off your kitchen work top and keep your clothes free from sprays of pink juice, you could always use a food processor to grate the beetroot.
1kg Greek or Turkish yoghurt (10% fat) Using bio or low fat yoghurt will result in a much thinner raita as the beetroot releases juice
3 medium to large beetroots (uncooked)
1 level tsp salt (please adjust seasoning before you serve)
½ tsp roasted and ground cumin seeds
¼ tsp chilli powder (you can eliminate totally if you have very young children in your party)
¼ tsp sugar (increase if your beetroot is not very sweet)
In a dry pan (preferably an iron or heavy bottomed pan to prevent the cumin from burning), dry roast the cumin seeds on a low heat until the seeds change colour and darken and the cumin has a nutty fragrance. Grind the cumin in a spice grinder or you can crush the seeds with a pestle and mortar. Peel and grate the beetroots. Beat the yoghurt and mix all the ingredients together.
Taste and adjust the seasoning before you serve. You can make this raita the day before and chill in the fridge.
Preparation time: 2 hours
900ml whole milk
1 bay leaf
3 small green cardamoms
50g ghee or unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
Nuts to garnish (optional)
Peel and grate the carrots. Bring the milk to a boil, add the grated carrots and let the milk return to a boil.
Add the cardamom and bay leaf. Lower the temperature to prevent the milk from burning and keep stirring at regular intervals.
This is a dish where you need to have patience and a great playlist playing in the background as it is not a quick dessert! Keep stirring regularly to prevent the milk from getting caught at the bottom of the pan.
When all the milk has been absorbed/evaporated, add the ghee or unsalted butter and sugar. Keep stirring till the sugar has dissolved and the carrot paste is moist but dry.
This halwa is best served warm garnished with nuts and double cream on the side.
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