Darjeeling Express: the amateur cooks turned professional chefs

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The kitchen at London’s Darjeeling Express is unlike any other. It’s home to a remarkable team of women who have never cooked professionally

“Some people come for the food, some people come for the story,” says Asma Khan, in a quiet moment at her new restaurant, Darjeeling Express, near London’s Carnaby Street. The food is from the streets and homes of Kolkata, with the occasional trip to Hyderabad and Darjeeling; the story is that it’s cooked by a team of women with no former professional kitchen experience.

Khan, unfailingly described as “a force” by everyone who meets her, is tired but happy: Darjeeling Express has taken some time to come together. While she was studying for a PhD in constitutional law, Khan would see Indian nannies at her children’s school in South Kensington, “working for English or French families – never Indian”. She’d moved to the UK in 1991, and knew how lonely it could be, and how much she missed the food of her own family. So she invited the nannies round to eat. They were from different regions, religions and classes, spoke different languages, but sang the same Bollywood songs in the kitchen. When she handed in her PhD in 2012, Khan decided, at 43, that what she really wanted to do was cook, so began a supper club in her home featuring the Mughlai cuisine she’d grown up with in India, helped by her friends. “They would just turn up, they wanted to help cook,” she says of her army of nannies. Khan believes cooking can be a way to provide stability for those whose lives have been uprooted. “All these women lived lives unfulfilled. And always this feeling: ‘You are nobody, you have nobody, you don’t belong.’”

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