Save its glowing, neon blue sign, there is nothing flashy about Tayyabs, the Punjabi-Pakistani curry house in London's Whitechapel.
But thanks to an Observer Food Monthly award and rave reviews by everyone from Jay Rayner to Lonely Planet ("buzzing," apparently), the unassuming restaurant has lines of punters snaking around the block to taste its lauded seekh kebabs and fresh roti. On weeknights. In Whitechapel.
The first thing I ask Wasim Tayyab, the youngest of the three Tayyab brothers, is whether he thinks curry is Britain's favorite dish. He pauses to consider its popularity.
"I went with the family to Alton Towers and we stayed there for a weekend, and on the menu they've got a page dedicated to 'Indian food,'" he tells me. "A place like Alton Towers that's only burgers, fries and chicken nuggets, or fish fingers. When I saw the Indian—onion bhaji, chicken tikka masala, pilaf rice, naan—I thought, 'Wow, that's nice.'"
Did you eat it?
"I didn't, no. I wouldn't order it, if I'm honest with you," Wasim laughs. "I'd rather stick to the fish and chips. You can't get that wrong."
I'm reminded of that Goodness Gracious Me sketch with a table of Bombay diners at a "traditional English restaurant" ordering the blandest thing on the menu. When I ask Wasim what he makes of people who ask for chips at an Indian restaurant, his answer takes me by surprise.
"You know what? I'm embarrassed to say, but if I go to an Indian restaurant, I'd order chips."
I assume he's joking, but he remains deadpan.
"I do. I just … I don't know. So many times my brother says that a customer has asked for fries and I always say no. I'm never gonna do it here. I'll never do it here."
That's so hypocritical, I contest.
"I know," he sighs, "but I just love fries. Who doesn't?"
According to Wasim, British food is not curry, but fries (chips), pie and mash, jellied eels, and Tubby Isaac's. I offer that perhaps British cuisine might now include "ethnic" dishes, then catch myself, regretting my wording. Wasim nods.
"Desi. Desi food. Desi's like," he says, turning to photographer Liz, "traditional."
I ask Wasim what he thinks of non-traditional curries—the kind of Anglicized atrocities that are sold by Indian takeaways on almost any British high street and would make my grandmother cringe. What it is that they manage to get so wrong?
"I've never tasted them. These kind of places, they're running honest businesses—I'm not trying to diss them—but in a place like that, I order a pizza," he says. "Or I'll order chips from them. I wouldn't order a chicken madras. I know this for a fact that they don't eat what they cook there. The staff don't eat chicken tikka masala. They have one gravy and they're making 50 dishes out of that one gravy."
There is no chicken tikka masala to be found in the kitchen at Tayyabs. Instead, there are juicy, turmeric-stained skewers of chicken tikka, and thin, perfectly round chapattis that stick to the walls of a tandoor. A prep room houses pateela pans filled with adrak lasan—hundreds of peeled cloves of garlic and knobs of fresh ginger.
Wasim rhapsodises about his father, who founded Tayyabs in 1972, describing his military precision and competitive spirit in endearing detail. Even before the restaurant opened, Mohammed Tayyab's cooking was famous among the colleagues he lived with (seven other men, all of whom lacked the ability to cook anything more complicated than a fried egg). His idea was to provide "proper home food" for Whitechapel's Asian men, many of whom were single, working, and in need of a decent lunch.
Mohammed, who won a Jaguar Award of Excellence for his contribution to the East End's curry industry in 2014, learned to cook the way all Indian cooks do: from his mother. Wasim describes his grandmother as the critic of the family, and not one to hold back if the meat was even slightly overcooked. While Mohammed took care of the curries, Wasim's mother made the chapatis.
"Mum used to make the chapatis, because that was the hardest for my father. He wasn't really good at the bakery skills," he remembers. "Plus it was hard to get roti flour. There weren't no shops around here. They had to go a few miles away to Leytonstone, to Nagrecha Bros. They were the first suppliers of desi ingredients around here. Dad just started off with a meat curry and dhal and roti and rice. This was our four-item menu."
Later, Mohammed would introduce daily specials. My visit falls on a Friday afternoon, which means meat biryani. A hot silver plate of saffron-scented rice streaked with slivers of toasted almonds, fresh green chilies, and tender shreds of spicy lamb arrives at the table. It's fragrant and buttery and tastes like my aunt's.
Both my family and Wasim's are Punjabi, and it's comforting to eat the kind of North Indian food my mum might make at home. I often find restaurant curries too sweet, too thick, and sullied by unwelcome dried fruit.
But at Tayyabs, everything we eat—from the charred lamb chops that arrive at the table still sizzling to an unctuous moong masoor dhal the colour of sunshine—is intensely savory. As it should be.
"If someone asked, 'Can you make me a chicken madras?' I would say, 'Look, I don't know how to make it, I'm sorry. I can make you a karahi.' We don't use cream or sugar or coconut in our cooking, because it's Punjabi food," Wasim explains.
As Liz and I finish our plates, a waiter asks if we'd like mango lassi to drink. Of course, I say. He asks if we'd like a jug but I don't quite catch him, so nod amiably while Liz raises an eyebrow from across the table. I let out a giggle of surprised delight when he comes back five minutes later with so much milky, apricot-colored liquid that I have to take the leftovers home in a tall polystyrene cup.
I drink it the next morning after a night of enthusiastic dancing and almost immediately, my hangover disappears.
Photos by Liz Seabrook.
For more chips and curry, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.