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From the Gitmo Cookbook: Biryani at Tayyab's East London Curry House

The Guantánamo detainee Ahmed Rabbani's favorite dish is a Tower of Babel made of food, a multi-story parking garage starring rice.
November 14, 2014, 10:00am

Food plays an important role at Guantánamo Bay. Over the years, detainees have undergone a series of hunger strikes, which the authorities tackle by force-feeding the detainees using tubes and using the liquid nutrient Ensure. But food also exists in the memory, as a potent reminder of a life before Gitmo. Through the detainee's lawyers, we found out what foods some inmates miss the most.

Not everything they crave is imbued with the poetry of their homeland—for example, more than one detainee has a big thing for  jalapeño Pringles. Shaker Aamer is more of a Snickers man, though he's also pretty big on Mountain Dew and cookies. He also loves English biscuits and Indian sweets, which is mad because pretty much no-one likes Indian sweets.

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Ahmed Rabbani, a Pakistani citizen currently on hunger strike, went into great detail about the dish he missed the most, one that he used to make for weddings and special occasions. It seemed from his description to have endless layers of stuff: meat, rice, yogurt, tomatoes, sauce. It was a Tower of Babel made of food, a multi-story parking garage starring rice.

I couldn't figure out what it was, so I took the description to Tayyab's, the famed Punjabi restaurant in Whitechapel, East London. Before I'd finished my description I was told it was biryani, made the Sindhi way. They agreed to let me come back with a photographer to see the dish being made by Wasim Tayyab, who runs the restaurant with his two brothers, Saleem and Aleem.

Lamb is the meaty heart of Tayyab's biryani, cooked in a karahi, a deep circular cooking pot that is traditionally sat over coals. The dish is most commonly associated with Pakistan's Sindh province, and while Tayyab's is known for Punjabi food and all its cooks are Punjabi, biryani became a special dish cooked every Friday for lunch and dinner.

To go with the lamb: coriander, potatoes, orange and grapefruit, almonds, sultanas, saffron, ghee, and pre-soaked rice. Tayyab's, Wasim told me, was founded by his father Mohammed in "1972, officially, but it was way before that. There was a lot of rag trade in the area, so my father opened up a caff for home-cooked food."

For Mohammed Tayyab, making Friday's biryani was a military operation. Together with his wife, who ran the restaurant with him, he'd put the dish together with surgical precision. If you moved any of his utensils, you'd be in trouble.

Here's Wasim ladling a load of ghee into a saucepan for some onions. Wasim and his siblings grew up above the restaurant, which has expanded on the same site over the years. "We were born and brought up in the area. This kitchen was our playground," he says. Wasim was happily sucked into the family business and his father, now 80 years old, still comes every Friday.

In its early years, Tayyab's opened for breakfast at 7 AM, serving tea and toast to the occupants of the Salvation Army halfway house next door. Once breakfast was done, the tablecloths came out and the lamb chops, mixed grills, and curries Tayyab's is now famous for would be served for lunch.

Once the rice has been cooked and strained, the onions are put on a high heat with the ghee.

When the rice and the lamb are cooked, it's time to start layering the dish. The base is yogurt.

Followed by tomato, coriander, ginger, and red peppers.

Then the meat, then the yogurt again, then the tomato, coriander, ginger, and more red peppers.

This is followed by the introduction of the twist to the Tayyab's biryani, which is the use of orange and grapefruit.

Wasim squeezes both orange and grapefruit into the dish as it is being layered.

Here they are, those caramelized, almost-burnt onions, ready to go on the top of the dish once the first layer of rice has been introduced.

The process of layering is then repeated until the ingredients fill most of a large pot.

At the end, saffron is poured over the top.

A proud cook (Tayyab's doesn't call its cooks "chefs" because the restaurant does home cooking, no airs or graces needed) and his creation. The layers are now ready to go on the heat.

The pot is covered and heated for 20 minutes so the layers melt into one another and get hot.

To dish up a biryani you have to scoop it out using something that has a proper edge. This is to ensure that you get every layer of the dish.

See what I mean?

Many people make their biryani for weddings and other special occasions. It's a dish a bit like a Sunday roast, Wasim says, not one to be eaten all the time. And here it is, ready to eat, chili on the side (don't eat the chilli, I ate the chilli and it fucked me up).

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter here. More of Sam Hiscox's photography can be found here.