I’m meeting with Ahmad Zahid AKA The Naughtiest Brown Boy Alive, AKA the person behind Global Mat Soul Kitchen; the Instagram handle by which he sells his much sought-after biryani, described by some as the best you can find in Singapore. It’s biryani like you’ve never had before — even though he’s made the usual chicken and mutton versions, there’s also been stingray and even a vegan interpretation.
It’s a sweltering day out, and he’s decked out in out in an old, decommissioned neon-hued lion dance top; it’s high-visibility clothing for when he’s on his bicycle. We’re meeting at the No Name Teh Sarabat store at Baghdad Street, which seems perfectly apt for the kind of no-nonsense “soul food” he advocates.
He’s a man of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions; a practicing Muslim, he gained infamy as the cocktail bartender that refused to drink. He’s the rare and only other Malay member of the Hoon Hong Dragon & Lion Athletic troupe, and yet also plays guitar in homegrown black metal band Tantra. He also works as the chef-de-partie at Coriander Leaf — the biryani is only occasional, happening only when he musters the time or strength required to prepare it.
I was there to talk about his biryani, but soon realised that there was no way to approach that subject without going into how his three interests intersect: music, cooking & Chinese cultural arts.
Inspired by Zahid’s love for lion dance, Tantra’s aesthetic can be described as a cross between Taoist rituals and Norwegian black metal, and it’s a creative choice that has garnered much controversy — many members of the audience walked out of their now-legendary live show at The Substation, when the band set up the stage with copious amounts of incense, joss paper and a dramatically gigantic sword banner that usually makes its appearance for special temple events. “Everything is a show, when you play you have to give the audience something to remember. They’ve paid good money, it’s not about you, it’s about giving back to the audience, if you don’t give them something to remember, then you have failed as a performer,” he says.
He approaches his cooking the same way he does his role as a performer, believing that you have you have to “give people what they’ve paid for,” and refuses to sacrifice quality for anything — he has abandoned batches of biryani that didn’t turn out right rather than sell them.
Zahid’s fiercely tight-lipped about his recipe and process, and the reason’s an odd mix of spirituality and clever marketing as he lets on that he’s both emotionally and physically drained by the cooking, yet admits that “Some things are best left as the stuff of urban myth”. He prepares heaving amounts of biryani, sometimes enough to feed dozens of people, all in isolation like it’s a private, spiritual undertaking. Even the ordering process has an air of mystery around it; you first have to studiously follow his Instagram page, while hoping that there’ll be an announcement that there’s going to be biryani, then wait for the inevitable black metal-inspired post, complete with endlessly entertaining copy that reads like a mix of unapologetic self-promotion and rambly, Frank Zappa-esque irreverence & wordplay. Even then, you’re not guaranteed a packet of this ambrosial combination of meat, spices and rice. The amount of biryani he prepares each time, and the frequency at which he prepares it is all subject to his mysterious (or arbitrary) whims, although it’s been roughly once a month going by his Instagram page.
It seems strange how a subgenre of metal oftentimes associated with grotesque imagery and misanthropic messages might serve as the inspiration for a biryani that has been described as “sublime”. Yet if you understand his fascination with black metal, more specifically, the 2nd wave of black metal, it all starts to make sense.
“It was all very ‘elitist’ — the second wave of black metal had their own lingo, their own mythos going on.” Zahid explains. It’s a extreme genre and subculture which developed in relative isolation, in a very unlikely environment—Norway, one of the most developed countries in the world—that has surprisingly gained global recognition. His biryani, Zahid says, has more or less followed the same blueprint. We know that his recipe is based on a particularly famous chicken biryani from Dubai, although he says that the current iteration that he serves now has been tweaked beyond recognition.
“Most of the so-called biryani masters are 40, 50 or 60 years old, they’re above a certain age, and their biryanis all have some relation with South Asia like Pakistan, India, but mine doesn’t. In that sense I am doing something that they are doing, but in a very closed-off way. So here I am, doing my own thing, and somehow people seem to like it.” He explains. The biryani first came about after a disappointing experience while studying in Melbourne; he was promised the dish by a halal restaurant, but never got to eat it after the owner told him that it “wasn’t worth it to make a new batch”. Thus was born the desire to create his own exceptional, headily-spiced version for special occasions.
If anything, he’s clearly an outsider, some sort of gastronomic countercultural figure just as strongly opposed to “rainbow cakes” and hipster posturing as he is to any sort of class distinction.
He describes his biryani as something of an ‘equalizer’ — people of all races and social status are “forced” to wait at his HDB void deck to collect their biryani. Some of them chat while waiting, some of them meet old friends whom they’ve not seen in a long time, and all of them brought together through an appetite for biryani. “I’ve had people bring their parents who, for some reason want to meet me, because they say that the biryani reminds them of the past. I’ve also seen tai tais with their Hermes bags, waiting downstairs at my block, made to come to the ghetto, the most proletarian of the proletarian places.” He recounts with a laugh.
Our first experience was with his honey chicken biryani ($10/pack), which also came about after another disappointing experience with the same dish from an unnamed restaurant. Arriving at the very void deck mentioned (it’s much nicer than he describes it), we found that most of the biryanis were already claimed. When asked about how much biryani he prepared that day, the answer was an immediate and somber “cannot say”, followed by a quick grin, which left us as confused as we were hungry.
Is Zahid’s biryani all that it’s made out to be? It certainly ticks all boxes for a very good biryani; fluffy, well-separated long-grained rice that dances on your tongue, a masala (spice mix) that’s well balanced yet punchy, and tender, flavourful meat; the honey chicken reminded us of ayam masak merah, although replacing the sugar with honey meant that it didn’t have that syrupy, tongue-coating aftertaste that sugary food usually has. The star of the show, however, is definitely the rice, which as far as we could tell, was judiciously spiced and tempered with the slow-rendered fat of either beef or mutton, resulting in a flavourful-yet-light rice that we just want to shovel spoonful after spoonful into our mouths.
Good as it might have been, the biryani failed to blow our minds or provide any sort of gustatory epiphany, perhaps our palates are jaded, or perhaps we went in with too many expectations. But make no mistake, this is one damn good biryani, and the only way for you to find out if it’ll provide any revelatory experiences is to wait by your phone with bated breath for Zahid’s next run.
For those who want to make your own biryani at home to tide you through the coming dry spell, he’s got some cyptic, sagely advice:
“A cook is only as good as the ingredients he or she uses, you start out with the best intentions, and use the best ingredients, and you start every endeavour with well wishes — I think that’s where the magic happens.”