Saturday lunchtime, and the noble backstreets of Westminster are quiet. Yet, deep in the bowels of a particular building, there’s a buzz of activity in the kitchen; a hive of so many worker bees. A procession of unflappable waitresses are clad in bright red, the hue never reaching their calm complexions. And, in the elegant library room, 60 people prepare for the journey of a lifetime.
This is the Cinnamon Club, where today’s guests will board the Darjeeling Express to be taken on an extensive tour of Calcutta, captained by Asma Khan, the brains and talent behind the eponymous supperclub and its meteoric rise. The trip is merely virtual; the Darjeeling Express experience, however, promises to be both life-affirming and deliciously visceral.
Canapes circulate, as do compliments for Khan’s khana. And these unsuspecting chaps have merely dipped a tentative toe into the vast ocean that is today’s menu. By all accounts, Dharamtallah samosas are crisper, more friable than they’ve tasted; fishcakes sing of Bengal. Guests may even be using toothpicks as tiny weapons to fend off a competitor for the last morsel of chicken seekh kabab.
And in the bar, the Lalani brothers tinker with the tools of their trade; tea leaves, timers and the balloon-shaped glasses that allow each of their boutique teas to sing their own aria. The ‘tea flight’ is a canny flight of fancy that will serve to cleanse and refresh the palate throughout the feast, readying mouth, mind and belly for more.
Guests are seated and service commences with the starters that serve as an edible introduction to the diverse delicacies particular to Calcutta cuisine. A single gargantuan prawn, anointed with mustard and coconut; a steamed momo with its almost origami-like folds; a tengri kabab, the whole drumstick moist and succulent; and platters of papri chaat in all its chaotic splendour.
As with all food that assaults your senses so wickedly, a collective hush descends on the dining room, closely followed by the eruption of excited culinary conversation. The enthusiasm, and, it seems, the appetite, knows no bounds – waitresses return to the kitchen with plates scraped so clean they barely require a rinse.
The lore and the legacy is largely what seasons Asma’s food with such inimitable flavour and feeling, leaving diners not only hungry to try more, but also to know more. And Kalyan Karmakar, Indian food authority and founder of the ‘Finely Chopped’ blog, is the finest fellow to explain Calcutta’s khana to this group; his speech received with as much savour as the food.
It also leaves them hungry to taste more of the city, to explore the avenues and alleyways Kalyan describes so vividly by mounding their plates high with Bengal vinegar-seasoned sirka gosht; chicken chaap with its delicate, haunting tastes direct from Calcutta’s royal courts; the impossibly sweet, rich malai tilapia; and aloo dam, the panch phoran evoking both the earth and atmosphere of Bengal.
Outside the private dining room, life, and lunch, goes on; uninitiated fellows blissfully unaware of the shared feast taking place within its walls. But in that room, time has taken a lunch-long pause, and, although diners remain seated, they’ve been transported to a city half a world away. It’s clear from their faces; their loosened ties and kicked-off heels; their empty plates and stained napkins.
And it’s clear as they greet the ‘grand finale’ – heaping platters of the traditional dum-cooked mutton biryani of Calcutta – with a regal reception that would not be out of place at a Mughal banquet. A standing ovation, in fact, led by the Cinnamon Club’s own Vivek Singh, and dying down only because these folk cannot prolong the ecstacy of eating that dish a single second longer.
Green Saffron’s superior Basmati is laden with vast hunks of on-the-bone meat, and bejewelled with jammy aloo Bukhara plums. This biryani is food for both gods and mere mortals – elevated to the heavens with the heady perfume of saffron; given an earthy grounding with whole potatoes. Its bounty is done justice with Spartan accompaniments; cool raita; sweet, fruit filled tomato chutney.
Kalyan speaks for the room when he says, ‘As someone who eats out a lot, you get used to smiling and nodding when you’re asked how the food is. I wanted to do both those things, but I just kept reaching out and taking more biryani’. The ultimate compliment to any chef, and especially Asma – the mere physical act of eating with such aplomb speaking sheer volumes.
The physical act of making space to slot in a helping or two of fruit chaat and bhappa doi is surely another testament to taste. And, as the rock-salt-seasoned rainbow bowls of exotic fruits arrive alongside the beautiful unglazed vessels in which rich, jaggery-sweetened yogurt has been steamed, belts are discreetly let out a notch to allow everyone to notch up at least a few spoons’ worth.
With that sweetest of sweet endings, so concludes this Calcutta conclave. It’s a reluctant bunch that make their way back onto the dull London streets, hampered somewhat by the full stomachs that are already hankering for another ride on the Darjeeling Express. In each departing diner’s hand, a small reminder of the trip – a jar of Asma’s own imli ka chutney. What a journey. What a guide.
- Darjeeling Express www.darjeeling-express.com
- Kalyan Karmakar’s blog www.finelychopped.net
- Lalani & Co. www.lalaniandco.com
- Green Saffron Spices www.greensaffron.com
- The Cinnamon Club www.cinnamonclub.com
- Follow @AsmaKhanCooks @Finelychopped @LalaniAndCo @greensaffron @CinnamonClub on Twitter.
Big thanks to Finely Chopped for his evocative images!