Around once a week, 20 to 30 people gather on the ground floor of a nondescript public housing complex, somewhere on the eastern fringe of central Singapore.
Small talk is made among the strangers in jungle-like humidity, until a man wheeling a trolley laden with large, insulated bags bursts into view. Armed with money and carrier bags, people start lining up for the island’s most sought-after biryani.
Prepared by local chef Ahmad Zahid in his flat, each order contains a mountain of fragrant basmati rice layered on top of juicy masala with a side of spiced pineapple pickle—all packaged into a takeout box. This ancient dish of kings is nothing like the curry I grew up eating in India and the Gulf. Zahid’s biryani is insanely light and lacks the food coma that accompanies restaurant versions. It’s also a tad hard to come by.
Those who want in on the action must first send a “follow” request to Zahid’s private Instagram account Global Mat Soul Kitchen. Once approved, they visit his page on a daily basis in hopes of catching “the drop”—a black metal-inspired post detailing the next batch of biryani.
The announcements, often typed in capital letters, are nihilistic, witty, surreal, and lengthy. A devout metalhead, Zahid composes Slayer-inspired poetry, routinely referencing death, blood, and mortality in describing the week’s special. Previous dishes include the “Mutton Biryani of Doom”, the “Ooh Crickey Stingray Biryani”, and the “OMFG Is It Really Vegan Biryani”. The latter was inspired by New York hardcore band Shelter, who are believed to have invented "Krishnacore," punk music influenced by the vegetarian Hare Krishna movement.
Once customers get through the wall of Instagram text, they order via WhatsApp using a number at the bottom. But it’s a first-come, first-serve basis and the window is narrow. Zahid’s mobile is quickly flooded with 40 to 50 requests. This is usually the most he can handle, given that he also works full-time in a buzzy pan-Asian restaurant. The lucky few are then texted instructions to appear at his apartment building on a certain date, when he hands out the goods himself.
What started as a casual pastime for Zahid has since morphed into a cult business that's grown organically through simple word of mouth. And while Global Mat Soul Kitchen is still small-scale, the Instagram profile has around 2,450 followers and first-timers quickly become steadfast fans. Local actresses, radio personalities, and other chefs are among the high-profile clientele—Zahid refuses to name drop—but they don't get any special treatment.
“I see this whole operation as a great equaliser, no amount of money or status is going to help if you missed the order window,” he tells me one bright August day.
“My neighbourhood isn’t the prettiest and for a lot of upper middle class folks, it’s one of the few times they’re made to wait in that kind of locale,” Zahid continues. “This is my way of breaking barriers with food.”
It’s a concept inherent to the Malay custom of makan berdamai, in which people eat from a communal plate in a show of unity.
This afternoon, Zahid is on his usual biryani offensive, but for a different market. Today’s chicken edition is headed to a local non-profit that delivers meals to the needy. To avoid disturbing Zahid's mother with my camera, we're cooking in a kitchen studio, rather than his home.
In one pot, chicken thighs are three-quarter fried with turmeric, garam masala, salt, and an assortment of spices. In another vessel, boiling water for the rice is doused with star anise, cinnamon, bay leaves, cumin, and two types of cardamom. Layering the freshly cooked basmati on top of the masala and meat is the most crucial step, according to Zahid: “You want the rice to be floating, or as we say in Malay 'macam kapas,' which means ‘like cotton.’"
Once that's done, he adds chopped mint and coriander, which “creates a steam oven effect in the pot, with the herbs, masala, and chicken all flavouring the rice in a little eco-system.” A splash of rose water and the pot is then sealed with aluminium foil and left on low heat for around 45 minutes.
The genesis of Zahid’s biryani recipe lies in Dubai. “Years ago, my then-fiancée and I ate at a restaurant there called Pak Liyari, whose biryani blew my mind. We took about seven packets back to Singapore, where I reverse-engineered it to the point where the original version isn’t even recognisable.”
If the biryani gets Zahid's approval (sometimes, it doesn't), he moves onto the meticulous process of packing. First, the top layer of white rice is separated. Same goes for the second layer, which is yellow after being soaked in masala juice. The meat and masala are the first to be individually packed in containers, followed by the yellow and white rice. The whole process is a one-man operation and takes hours, during which Zahid likes to blast a blend of Lebanese pop, Malay retro-hits, and Scandinavian metal.
The straight-edge chef, who previously tended bar at a trendy cocktail joint despite not drinking, derives much of his inspiration from two vastly different sources: extreme music and religion.
On his apron are two pins, one of the Prophet Muhammad's sandal and the other of Watain, a Swedish black metal band that practices devil worship. “As humans, we draw power from whatever sources needed to get through struggles," he explains. "If that power happens to be from a dark place, as long as it doesn’t harm you, then why not?"
The elitist mentality of Norwegian black metal, specifically the second wave of the early 90s, has been particularly influential, motivating Zahid to take as much pride in his work as the Norwegians do with their supreme black art.
Zahid, who leans towards Sufi schools of thought, explains that he made a covenant with God “to bring people together through cooking.” The name “Global Mat Soul Kitchen” itself speaks to that cause. “Soul Kitchen” is a reference to dargahs, the Sufi shrines that offer food to followers.
“The people who sought shelter in those kind of places were typically degenerates and I related to the idea of miscreants looking for an avenue to reconcile their love for food and God,” Zahid explains.
The term “mat,” meanwhile, is a general term for a Malay male that’s often used in a derogatory manner.
“Mats are seen as having no aim in life, so this biryani business is my way of showing that I’m a successful mat,” he says.
Zahid earns a small profit that keeps the venture sustainable and despite increasing demand, refuses blank cheques from investors who want him to launch a restaurant: "The minute I monetise this, I'll have broken that agreement I made with God."
"Plus, I like keeping it underground," he adds.