Above: The glowing Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express Indian supperclub.
Let's face it. The more prestigious the restaurant, the more likely the head honcho chef is to have a reputation for being protective of their turf.
So much so that Chef Vivek Singh opened the doors to the hallowed halls of The Cinnamon Club - one of the big league fine dining Indian restaurants in London - for Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express Indian supperclub to host a pop up lunch banquet, restaurant guide stalwart Square Meal sat up and took notice, pinning it on their calendar of upcoming events.
Even Asma herself was taken aback when she first shared the news with me a couple of months back: "I'm an untrained chef and a woman! Their kitchen have never let in either before!"
So what made Chef Vivek do it?
Above: From left, Chef Vivek Singh of The Cinnamon Club, Kalyan Karmakar of Finely Chopped and me spend a delicious afternoon swapping stories about authenticity, Indian-Chinese food and competition among restaurants and bloggers at the Darjeeling Express Cinnamon Club popup. Photo courtesy of Ming Tang-Evans.
Asma's fabulous cooking, certainly. When the Darjeeling Express pop up came to pass at The Cinnamon Club this past weekend, Chef Vivek made our table get up and ladle our biriyani onto our plates ourselves, rather than passing the giant platter around. "Because this biriyani deserves a standing ovation!" he declared!
Asma's colourful family history, perhaps? Asma doesn't talk about it much, but she is actually a member of old Mughal royalty. But a penniless princess, she shrugged to me over a cup of chai when she first shared with me the news about The Cinnamon Club, with not even enough money to upkeep a token crumbling family palace in India. Her grandfather gave away all the family lands when India gained Independence, she says, with glowing pride rather than bitterness.
Chef Vivek's own enlightened attitude to perceived competition, partly. "The stage is big enough for all of us," he says, hinting at collaborative events to come.
"Here's the real hook for me", Chef Vivek confides as he leans over his chicken kebabs and momos this past Saturday (27 Apr 2013) at the popup, "All my life, I've met so many women who tell me they are tied down by food. They do a hundred and one different things not food related, to liberate themselves from food."
"Then here's Asma. A woman who is highly educated academic lawyer. A mother, whom, now that her children are old enough, is liberating herself through food! I find that utterly fascinating."
Could this it be the start of an edible liberation movement within ethnic minority communities? At the Darjeeling Express popup I also have the pleasure of meeting the irrepressible Iqbal Wahab (below), the original founder of The Cinnamon Club, and now CEO of Roast Restaurant at Borough Market. He and Sahara Quli (2 seats to his right) are involved in a new programme to train up ethnic minority women (and a few men) to leverage their (hidden, possible under-appreciated) home cooking expertise to make a living outside of the home.
All exciting food for thought, possibly the best pairing of all to Asma's beautiful cooking that just kept on coming that afternoon. The full menu below.
Delightful collaborations included:
A curated tea flight by British tea boutique Lalani & Co, featuring exquisite small batch leaves from the Darjeeling region.
Green Saffron Rice's aged basmati for Asma's biriyani. Salted and stored in between leaves, the rice dehydrates, strengthening its grain structure and concentrating its flavour.
Cocoa Hernandos' addictive masala chai-infused chocolate buttons.
Duke of Delhi's spicy ginger cookie in a take-home goodie bag.
Above: I couldn't resist featuring the gorgeous Shu of Mummy I Can Cook twice in the collage above. She could definitely pass for a pretty girl from Darjeeling, so close to the Chinese border!
*Potato and Peas Samosas
*Chicken Seekh Kabab
*Salmon and Dill Fish Cakes
*Black Tail Tiger Prawn in a Glass
*Okra Boats (Vegetarian)
*Steamed Nepali Momo with Green Himalayan Chutney
* Vegetable Momo (Vegetarian)
*Papri Chaat (potato and chickpea with tangy tamarind chutney)
*Tengri (chicken) Kabab
* Baigan Bhajja- Aubergine Pakora (Vegetarian)
*Sirka gosht (Slowcooked lamb with Calcutta's signature vinegar)
* Bengali Niramish (Dry-fried mix vegetable fish, lightly spcied and sprinkled with lemon juice)
*Channa (chickpea) Dal (Vegetarian)
*Bengali Fish Malai Curry
* Paneer Malai Curry (Vegetarian)
The Rice Finale
*Calcutta Mutton Biryani
*Vegetable Pallau (Vegetarian)
*Darjeeling Express’s signature tomato, apricot and prune chutney
Steamed Bengali yogurt (described by a guest as what a chai latte pudding would taste like!)
Selection of fruits marinated in Himalayan rock salt, lime juice and brown sugar
Want to get on board the Darjeeling Express? Asma's next event is a Gymkhana tea party on Sat 18 May 2013. Taste for yourself what happens when Indian and Pakistani high society mingle with English Colonials!
Disclosure: I'm the founder of Edible Experiences, and provide ticketing and marketing services for Darjeeling Express. I attended the Darjeeling Express - Cinnamon Club popup as an invited guest.