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behind the bars: guantanamo bay

Cooking Ahmed Rabbani’s Biryani at Tayyab's East London Curry House

It's the Guantánamo detainee's most-missed dish.

by Oscar Rickett
10 November 2014, 10:00am

Food plays an important role at Guantánamo Bay. Over the years, detainees have undergone a series of hunger strikes in an attempt to draw attention to their plight. The authorities tackle these strikes by force-feeding the detainees using tubes, altering the height and weight of detainees and using the liquid nutrient, Ensure. But food also exists in the memory, as a potent reminder of a free life lost to Gitmo.

Via their lawyers, some of the detainees have told us about the food they 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 jalapeno Pringles. Shaker Aamer is more of a Snickers man, though he's also pretty big on Mountain Dew and cookies. He loves English biscuits and Indian sweets from his wife, who he hasn't seen for over 12 years.

It was Ahmed Rabbani – a Pakistani citizen also currently on hunger strike – who went into the most 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, yoghurt, tomatoes, sauce. It was a Tower of Babel made of food, a multi-storey car park starring rice.

I couldn't work out what it was so I took the description to Tayyab's, the fame Punjabi restaurant in Whitechapel, East London. Before I'd finished my description I was told it was biryani, made the Sindhi way. I spluttered something about how I'd eaten lots of biryani when I was a kid (not actually a lie) and was just confused by the description. I hung my head in shame and agreed to 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: the meaty heart of the Tayyab's biryani, cooked in a karahi, a deep circular cooking pot that 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 7AM, 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. Given that the pot is engulfed in flames it's hard to see why Wasim's father would often get angry with himself for burning the onions a little. Surely that's just what happens when you apply a lot of fire to something quite small?

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

Followed by tomato, coriander, ginger and red peppers.

Then the meat, then the yoghurt 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. The recipes followed at Tayyab's are a secret, passed down by Mohammed to his sons and kept more or less within the restaurant.

Wasim squeezes both orange and grapefruit into the dish as it is being layered, the fruit infusing into every part.

Here they are, those caramelised, almost-burnt onions, ready to go on the top of the dish once the first layer of rice has been introduced. The crispiness of the onions is actually not a mistake, despite what Mohammed Tayyab might have publicly exclaimed. In fact, it could be another secret of the dish.

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 don't call their cooks "chefs" – the restaurant does home cooking, no airs and 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 meld 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? Every layer, present and correct.

Ahmed Rabbani made his 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, chilli by the side (don't eat the chilli).

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