Ordered via Instagram, served in the 'hood: The chef who wants to unite people through briyani
SINGAPORE: Seven adults and a toddler sit patiently at an Aljunied Crescent void deck on a breezy Sunday evening. Time ticks by; it has been more than 20 minutes, but there is no complaining, just the occasional glance at watches and handphones.
And then as the lift door opens, conversations are suspended.
Plastic containers are doled out, crumpled bills exchange hands, and as dusk falls, the loot is quietly trucked off. The deepest cravings have been satisfied - a lucky few have caught the "drop".
They hail from all parts of Singapore, lured by the promise of tender chunks of meat buried under mounds of fragrant basmati rice, complemented with a side of pineapple pickle. This is briyani so good it was once sold out in 28 seconds.
"I have a guy who takes public transport from Jalan Bahar, orders one packet, comes here and eats in front of me," said the man behind this phenomenon, Ahmad Zahid. "There was another girl who took a Grab down from Jurong, finished half her packet of briyani here and then went back to finish the rest of it."
But cooking briyani is a pastime for the 41-year-old, and Zahid doesn't really care how many takeout boxes are sold - so long as he gets customers down to what he calls his "hood" and rediscover the humble void deck.
"When I was growing up, the void deck was the epicentre of all our social activities. It was where we gathered, funerals were here, weddings were held here," said Zahid, who has lived on the estate since he was born. "I think people have forgotten just how socially significant the void deck used to be. It was a great equaliser.
"Even if customers live in a place where there's a void deck, they haven't had the same experience as I have had. They see it as an empty space they have to cross before going home."
Those interested in ordering briyani have to first shoot a "follow" request to Zahid's Instagram account, "globalmatsoulkitchen".
"Drops", where briyani is sold to a limited few, are announced there by posts of stark, almost Dada-esque, Black Metal inspired imagery, accompanied by extended, quirky captions.
Customers can then send their orders via WhatsApp to Zahid's mobile number, with orders taken on a first-come-first-served basis. Those who succeed are then texted pick-up instructions, and they would gather in eager anticipation at a void deck in the Aljunied Crescent neighbourhood.
The special of the day can range from vegan to stingray, honey chicken to mutton briyani.
"You come here and you wait. It doesn't matter what status you have, you are just like anybody else," said Zahid confidently. "And I can assure you that during the time you spend waiting, out of your comfort zone, it will be worth it."
Zahid's briyani draws inspiration from a restaurant in Dubai he visited years ago while on holiday with his then-fiancee.
"It was a very run-down, humble, unassuming kind of place," he explained. "I looked at the briyani and it was like white rice with brown things below. It was interesting because it was just that and there was no gravy. But then I dug into it and I realised, this was what it was all about.
"Having that plate of briyani there, it was almost like time stood still."
Returning to Singapore with several packets in tow, Zahid spent the next two weeks coming up with a basic recipe. However, finessing the final formula took close to three years.
Following encouragement from friends and family, Zahid, a former bartender, began to whip up small batches of briyani during his free time.
In 2015, he made the career switch to full-time cooking. He currently works as a chef de partie at Asian restaurant Coriander Leaf.
"I decided that this could be like a school project that never was," Zahid added. "Nine months after I started (full-time) cooking, I stopped the Instagram project. And when I was able to juggle both, I reactivated the account and started posting again."
He draws his inspiration for cooking from two seemingly contrasting sources: Religion and black metal.
Zahid quotes the Arabic word "silaturahim", which can be translated to "relations". "The nature of the Muslim is that he is not an island, he is part of society and part of something bigger," explained Zahid. "There's always a mention of being inclusive, you have to integrate.
"Food is a conduit for that. It brings people together, it breaks down barriers."
Zahid's Instagram handle is also meant to convey a sense of spirituality; the term "Soul Kitchen" reflects the Sufi traditions of kitchens being places of refuge.
The "almost-elitism" and "standard of excellence" in Black Metal music - in particular the Norwegian bands of the second wave of the 1990s - also inspires Zahid to strive for the same standards in the food he makes.
"You knew when these bands produced any albums that it was going to be good," explained Zahid. "I hope I can achieve the same quality with my cooking."
Ironically, it was also a briyani craving which went unfulfilled that got Zahid started on his culinary journey.
"In university, there was one particular day when things were not going great. There was this place just down the street where my apartment was, so after school I went to that place because I know they sold briyani," recalled Zahid, who was studying in Australia then.
"When I went there, they said: 'I'm sorry, we sold out. We will make a fresh batch, so come back at six o'clock.' So in anticipation of a good meal, I didn't eat anything. But when I went down later, they told me that it was not worth making a fresh batch just for one person.
"That's when I knew instinctively, for sure, that never again would I depend on anybody to cook for me a meal. If I wanted to eat anything, I would learn to make it myself."
Rather than having to rely on having briyani served up for him, Zahid now has the opportunity to feed a lucky few with his own take on the popular dish.
A typical work day sees him pull 12-hour shifts, so Zahid takes advantages of days off in his schedule to prepare for "drops". "If the next day is a day off, I'd be preparing the night before. If it's a lunchtime drop then I'll be preparing very early. If it's an evening drop, I'd do a bit of preparation, go to sleep and wake up to continue."
Zahid, who counts lion dance and playing in black metal bands among his other hobbies, admits that cooking consumes a large chunk of his leisure time.
"I do the preparation, the cooking and the cleaning up," he said. "By the time cooking starts, you know it's going to be hot, you're going to be thirsty and people are going to keep bugging you on the phone. You have to be in the zone."
But he plans to continue for the foreseeable future. "(At the void deck), I see customers getting to know each other while waiting, old friends catching up, colleagues meeting after work," he explained. "This vindicates my decision to have it here. I've achieved what I wanted.
"I believe that if you cook from the heart, if you are sincere about it, people will know and taste the difference... This is my labour of love."