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Why Asma Khan’s biryani is the hottest dish in London

Asma Khan's Calcutta-style biryani has a huge fan following including celebrities like Paul Rudd

Representational image: Khan's biryani is slow-cooked in a degh, or pot, sealed with dough. (Photo: HT Archives)
Representational image: Khan's biryani is slow-cooked in a degh, or pot, sealed with dough. (Photo: HT Archives)

A supper club is generally an intimate affair, with a select group of diners sharing a unique gastronomic experience in a discreet, private space. At least that’s true in my native India. I’m thinking specifically of a place like Bohri Kitchen in Mumbai, where eight guests crowd around a table in Nafisa Kapadia’s downtown apartment, feasting on dish after delicious lamb dish from her tiny kitchen.

So there was some cognitive dissonance upon arrival at chef Asma Khan’s biryani supper club at a recent Sunday lunchtime in London. There is nothing intimate about her celebrated Darjeeling Express restaurant in the hyper-touristy Covent Garden shopping district, where the Royal Thali menu might include chili-crusted prawns and spiced mutton kebabs. The airy dining room seats 80 with plenty of elbow room—so large, in fact, that few diners noticed the celebrity in their midst. Paul “Ant-Man” Rudd, a regular at the restaurant, was here for his first biryani. Like the rest of us, he had to wait his turn: Tickets for the weekly lunch, at £95 ($130) a pop, must be booked far in advance. 

This is a long way from the cramped South Kensington apartment where nearly a decade ago, Khan began her rise to the top of London’s restaurant scene, feeding a dozen people while her children did their homework in the next room.

If the new iteration of her supper club lacks intimacy, Khan replicates the other elements that made the original so memorable: her gift for storytelling and her talents as a chef, weaving both personal experiences and social context into vivid descriptions of her food. The pièce de résistance of Khan’s meals, before Darjeeling Express opened in 2017, was her signature Calcutta biryani, one of the more subtle variants of the rice dish that’s so popular across the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

In the culinary spectrum, biryani is closer to comfort food than the extravagant meals that many diners with pent-up cash are clamoring for. But comfort food may be exactly what we need in this lingering Covid moment. For me, as with so many fans of Indian cuisine, a well-made biryani is reassurance on a plate.

At the Darjeeling Express supper club, the biryani is preceded by a sampling of starters from the restaurant’s regular menu. These include a Calcutta street food staple, the phuchka, a semolina shell filled with a spicy mix of potatoes and chickpeas, into which you pour some tamarind water before popping the whole thing into your mouth. Also, Bihari phulkis: deep-fried lentil balls, served with two sauces, spicy and tangy.

Khan, using a microphone to compensate for the large room, tells a tale for each dish. The phulkis, for instance, are how her family members break their Ramadan fast. The biryani is wheeled into the room in a giant aluminum vessel known as a degh as diners stretch with cellphones for photographs.

Khan takes center stage, explaining to novices that most biryanis involve rice cooked with a mix of spices and a choice meat cut; today, it’s lamb. The variant she’s serving was developed in the Metiabruz suburb of Calcutta in the late 19th century, in the kitchen of an exiled prince. Accompaniments include beet-infused yoghurt raita and a thick chili and onion gravy known as mirchi ka salan.

There is also a side of politics. Khan points out that biryani is commonly associated with her fellow Muslims. Amid India’s rising tide of Islamophobia, extremist Hindu-nationalist politicians have tried to use the biryani as a symbol of otherness, to identify and denigrate Muslims. Chef Khan exhorts her guests, many of them Indians, to embrace the dish for what it is: a gift from one culture to all others.

Khan has made her biryani in the style known as “dum pukht,” slow-cooked in a degh, or pot, sealed with dough. When she removes the seal (cue more frantic photo-taking), the escaping aroma fills the room. (Cue deep inhalations all around.) She digs into the vessel with a wooden utensil that is closer to an oar than a spoon, and mixes the layers of rice, meat, potatoes, and spices.

As biryani servings arrive in front of guests, Khan circumvents the room, chatting, which leads to more opportunities for storytelling as well as guidance on the accompaniments. At my table, she directs our attention to her use of plums in the biryani, a nod to the culinary influences of ancient Persia.

Following dessert—baked yoghurt from Bengal, stewed apricots that originated in Afghanistan—the staff bring takeaway boxes and encourages everyone to pile them up with still more biryani and fixings.

While filling two boxes, I note that Paul Rudd has helped himself to five. Typical Hollywood, I say to myself, A couple of days on, having exhausted my supply, I have to concede that Ant-Man had the right idea.


Written by Bobby Ghosh.

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