16 Jan 2024

Asma Khan stands out as one of the brightest culinary stars in both the UK and India—a distinguished restaurateur, best-selling cookbook author, and the founder of London's renowned Darjeeling Express restaurant. This multi-talented chef has become one of the UK’s most prominent culinary figures, with her restaurant a favourite among Hollywood’s A-list entertainers. Notably, her commitment to social change and her all-female kitchen team have solidified her status as an unstoppable force in the hospitality industry.

Joining us at Tasting Australia for Tasting Australia by Train and Dining Galleries – Darjeeling Express, Asma is set to make her first appearance in South Australia for this event. Before her arrival, let's delve into the culinary powerhouse’s background.

What is your earliest memory of food? 

My earliest food memory involves sharing lunch with my sister who was 18 months older then me. We were sitting on a balcony, accompanied by the watchful eyes of crows and the rumbling of trams passing by our building. I remember eating paratha with scrambled eggs and khicidi—a spice-free mix of rice and lentils with a dollop of ghee for children.

Can you describe the process of learning to cook and wanting to recreate dishes from home after immigrating from India to England? 

I was extremely homesick after moving from Calcutta to Cambridge. I was unable to cook and found it hard to find any food that tasted like what I ate at home. It was even harder to get Indian ingredients in the town. I had to cycle up a steep and lengthy road to purchase anything from a South Asian shop in Cambridge. My cycling skills were as limited as my cooking abilities, so I ended up walking back with the bike, too nervous to cycle with a full basket.

Eventually, I realised that the only way I could emotionally cope with the uprooting was to cook all my family favourites. I knew that food would heal me. On my first trip home I asked my mother, family cooks, and aunts to teach me how to cook. This was the start of a beautiful culinary adventure. Very soon I could cook all my favourite dishes - even Biryani - in my tiny Cambridge flat. The world looked so much better suddenly!

Your London restaurant was named after a train, and here at Tasting Australia you’ll star in a rail journey between Melbourne and Adelaide. What makes this form of travel so special?

I absolutely love traveling by train. When I was young, our family would embark on a long two-night train journey from the east of India to Aligarh in western Uttar Pradesh. During this journey, we crossed mighty rivers along a bridge over the ancient ghats of Benaras. Passing through numerous villages, the experience was truly fascinating! The Darjeeling Express, a meter-gauge steam train winding along mountain edges to Darjeeling, provided breathtaking views. Traveling by train is much more satisfying as you get to watch the scenery. The rhythmic beat of the train on the tracks is a beautiful melody that lulls you into a sense of peace.

What does your role as UN Chef Advocate involve? 

It has been an honour to serve as the Chef Advocate for the United Nations World Food Program. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to combat hunger, promote peace in conflict-affected zones, and prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war. My role is to support their work and encourage their staff working in refugee camps, raising awareness of hunger to both government and non-governmental agencies. I also lead some of their fundraising campaigns.

Tell us about the all-female team you work with at Darjeeling Express – and the opportunity for aspiring chefs to use the space on Sundays.

I am very fortunate to have a powerful force of women working alongside me at Darjeeling Express. Despite being the driving force in nourishing and feeding families in every home from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, women are poorly represented in restaurant kitchens. I am very committed to changing the gender balance in the kitchen. In support of future female food entrepreneurs, we have encouraged women to take over our restaurant on Sundays, providing them with an opportunity to build confidence and practice running a restaurant kitchen.    

What are your impressions of South Australia and its culinary scene?

This will be my first visit to the region, and I am so excited to cook with the fresh produce—from grapes to lobsters and tuna—this region offers a lot of high-quality food and drink ingredients. I am also looking forward to the weather!

What’s a staple dish you like to prepare when at home?

I am a carbs-on-carbs person. I love eating Paratha (flatbread made with plain or wholemeal flour) or Pulao (made with rice infused with garam masala) with potatoes. My favorite potatoes are zeera Aloo—potatoes infused with whole cumin seeds.

How has hospitality evolved since you became a restaurateur – and what do you see as the next frontier?

Yes, hospitality has evolved—not necessarily for the better. The setbacks of two years of COVID and Brexit have made staffing a make-or-break issue for many restaurants. Post-Brexit, all restaurants have struggled to recruit staff, as the backbone of hospitality in London was made up of staff from Europe. One positive outcome of COVID was the recognition of local restaurants in residential areas. People, who would typically travel into town to eat out, began frequenting their local restaurants. In the ten years I have been in the food industry, I have also witnessed the significant rise in the success of food delivery platforms. These platforms offer everything from food by Michelin-star chefs to the delivery of half-prepared recipes that only require assembling. It has become a direct challenge to traditional restaurants. London is still seeing several new restaurant and bar openings each month. There is still a lot of optimism, but for now we are going through challenging times