Asma Khan got a shock when she turned up at the Sun and 13 Cantons pub to resume her current residency.
There to greet the Darjeeling Express chef, as she got ready to unload her cookware and ingredients, were a group of Soho's homeless.
They'd remembered Asma from when she was last at the central London pub in January. More so, they'd remembered the leftover food she'd give them at the end of service, “because I cook everything fresh every day” she explains, “nothing gets kept overnight”.
So when they heard she was back, they came to lend her a hand.
“They didn't want anything for it,” continues Asma, clearly surprised at their generosity, “they just wanted to say thank you.”
It says a lot that people fed for free by Asma would feel compelled to return the favour, unasked.
But then, having tried her food, there are few things I wouldn't do to go back.
Asma made her name on London's supper club scene and her food – influenced by both Mughlai cuisine from her father's side and Calcutta where she was born and raised – has long been celebrated for its authenticity.
The menu isn't massive but we still need extra time to decide what we want. The starters include classics such as lamb or paneer samosas, which we didn't have but the appreciative noises from a table behind us said they were good.
I would've been keen to try the Masala Fries; chips spiced with sea salt and chilli flakes served with tamarind sauce and a chilli coriander chutney, but after a late brunch I knew I wouldn't be able to fit them in.
We settled on Puchkas: a staple of Calcutta street food. Wheat and semolina shells filled with spiced potato and chickpeas were fresh and spiced beautifully. The tamarind water you pour into each puckhas hole just before it's eaten gave a wave of sweet refreshment after the initial crunch.
The Khosa Mangsho, Bengali goat curry with potatoes, was perfect. Layered with flavours, the initial hit of the spice was followed by the solid meatiness of the goat, which fell apart with only the slightest encouragement.
I love potatoes in curries and these were no exception. Even better was the two-inch piece of bone packed with marrow waiting to be sucked out and savoured over.
Kala Channa, described as “nutty and earthy” black chickpeas, was just that – a punchy, beautiful mouthful with a gloriously thick gravy that elevated the humble chickpea to the next level.
I was sad once it was over, but buoyed again by the arrival of some Masala Chai, its strong, spicy cinnamon flavour taking me by surprise at first before I settled into it. It came with a lovely rose and pistachio biscuit, while the carrot halva with buttery clotted cream was also excellent.
This is food cooked with love, and the collective memory and experience of the four generations Asma has drawn upon. It's there in every mouthful and when Asma comes out of the kitchen to check everyone is enjoying their food - as she does regularly - my words seem inadequate to convey my utter joy.
The menu will change next week, and I will go again. I'm hoping Asma includes the Bhuna Lamb Chops I've heard about on the grapevine (read, Instagram) which she made for a family occasion. Until then I can only daydream about how good they must be.
I'd encourage all to go before the residency ends in March because you need to leave time for a return visit – you'll thank me for it.
Darjeeling Express is at the Sun and 13 Cantons until March 2016. For more information click here.