If I’m round for dinner, I’m that backseat chef who hovers around your shoulder poking at things with a wooden spoon, fiddling with oven temperatures and glowering jealously as you tadka your dal. And, if I’m a guest at a supperclub, I’m really just itching to fling back my chair and rush kitchen-wards. It’s a strong urge. Sometimes I have to cross my legs and sit on my hands. Forgive me. I just want to get in on the action and soak up the cook’s alchemy like a particularly effective sponge.
So when Asma drafted me in as a last-minute help for one of her sold-out supperclubs, I couldn’t have been happier. As far as she was concerned, I’d saved her skin; but really the pleasure was mine and mine alone. I’d been granted permission to cross that threshold between guest and host – to step into the hallowed inner sanctum and join this kitchen coven as an honorary member. Could there be a bigger honour? I don’t reckon so.
At table, the diners chat, sup and relax, wholly unaware of the glorious chaos enveloping Asma’s diminutive kitchen like a force-10 gale. Each and every surface may be piled precariously with ingredients, utensils and serving ware, but Asma and her right-hand woman Asha seem blissfully unaware, performing an elegant and elaborate culinary dance, the calm at the the eye of the storm. I want to learn their secrets. I need to know their secrets.
And I’m in luck, because behind the kitchen door is where the magic happens. It’s where humble tins of chickpeas are transformed into stunning fluffy-middled dumplings and handsome chaats; sky-high steamers yield a mountain of majestic Nepalese momos; and a simple triumvirate of prawns, turmeric and malai becomes a heavenly dish of sheer beauty. Watch, learn, emulate. I’m allowed to wrap kati rolls, strew pilau with cashews and fried onions, and toss fruit with chaat masala – and I am privileged.
The dialogue skitters between languages – a spicy masala of Hindi, Nepali, English and an awful lot of intuitive body language. Asha successfully second-guesses every move Asma makes, fielding the bowls thrust at her to be endlessly topped-up, answering the urgent call for more samosas. When Asma claims there’s no-one else she’d entrust as her deputy, I realise I want – need – to find my own culinary soulmate. The person who can garnish my gulab jamun has, thus far, eluded me – but the fantastical fellow’s out there.
Traditionally, the Indian kitchen has provided a haven for the women to gather for a good old masala gupshup, putting the world to rights as they expertly coil parathas and dart fingers in and out of jumping flames to puff chapattis. The beehives, if you will, of the home, a-buzz with activity and laughter and multiple queens. The drones of their menfolk are restricted to the living room, dulled by the sedative, meditative effects of a steady intake of chai and fresh-fried pakori.
Tonight, though, the culinary output is serving only to invigorate the assembled diner’s conversation – the ladies are sending out a stream of stunning Calcutta-style dishes, each received with the reverence befitting food so heavily influenced by the Moghul dynasty. This particular khana contains almost alchemical power, and Asma wields it well; providing generous top-ups until guests can ‘top up’ no more lest they explode.
Thankfully, thankfully, there’s plenty left in the kitchen. Back in that magical chamber, I’m sat down on a set of folding steps, a plate pushed into my hands with the insistence I ‘eat, eat’. Which I do. Enough for several sensible individuals. A tumble of lemon rice; creamy-rich malai prawns; long-stewed lamb; achar chicken; several momos; several too many of those fluffy kati rolls. And more besides. Last, a bowl of gajar kheer, as sweet as the feeling of being involved in all this.