An interview with tayyab’s brothers asim and wasim on their legendary London restaurant
The Whitechapel district of London's East End is popularised in Dickensian novels as Jack the Ripper's stomping ground amongst an alarming concentration of brothels. Now, over a century later, the brilliant and at times hyperbolic, homegrown music, art and fashion scenes have swapped positions with the ubiquitous fun houses and the area’s most talked about cult figure is a locally adored, 30-year-old, family run Pakistani restaurant called Tayyabs.
The late Mohammed Tayyab moved to England in 1963 and started a humble cafe serving tea and breads to only eight or nine tables, cooking himself fragrant lunch time curries in his break. The smells soon alerted local Bangladeshis and Pakistanis from a then vibrant Rag Trade, doctors from the Royal London Hospital and retired seamen, flocking to this go-to lunch destination.
George the Pole, an infamous ex-boxer, ran the pub next door, pulling pints for the likes of The Kray Brothers but Tayyabs closed their doors at 7pm, sharp. It was the 70s, the National Front was out and about and racial violence hung heavy in the air over the streets at night. This is a story where a trio of sons undertook a 15 year cooking apprenticeship, under the tutelage of their father, and this passion brought the city a totally unique eating experience that decades later, remains a sapphire encrusted, diamond hero of London.
Your family business has been around for almost 30 years, what's the secret to outstaying the rest?
AT: We're a family run restaurant, my dad started it and now us three brothers manage it. It was a very humble beginning as a cafe. My dad made the curries and my mum made breads. We started out selling one bowl of curry. The curries that we make, I used to think they were too hot for English customers. However, my dad said this was the way it tastes and I never want to change it. If you eat our curries and you go to Lahore, Pakistan. It tastes the same.
This neighborhood has seen every change imaginable, any good stories?
AT: We were born at the Royal London Hospital so we're East Enders, proper Cockneys. We went to school in the local area so this is our home.
WT: When we were young, the kitchen was our playground.
AT: The rag trade was very dominant in the East End in the 1970s and 1980s. By Brick Lane there were factories and sweat shops everywhere. We were the only restaurant people.
In all this time you're best known for your grilled meals but are there other dishes you've introduced on the menu that don't get as much limelight but still represent your style?
AT: The dry lamb curry is our signature dish. My father invented this curry, slowly braised with spices, it takes longer than all other dishes. In the morning he used to start off making the dry meat, then make the other curries and still the dry meat was cooking, always kept moving so it doesn't burn.
Back in the day you started out as a cafe serving nothing but bread and tea, adding curry to your menu for the local Bangladeshi and Pakistanis - can you tell us more about the early days of Tayyab's?
AT: We started out on the ground floor of the restaurant, with eight tables, only four to a table. The building next door, which is now ours used to be a pub, The Queen's Head. It got sold in 1996. You know on the Monopoly board Whitechapel's the last spot on there. That's how we felt. It wasn't posh, it was neglected. Not glamourous how it is now. Next door was Tower House, an old seamen rest for ex-navy folks. It was an old peoples home where no one looks after them. They used to be around and come to the pub. The landlord was George the Pole, an ex-boxer and him and his English wife, Eileen and they did really well. They knew The Krays. When George passed away, Eileen ran the pub for 10 years then just kind of gave up. Then we acquired the pub. We used to close at 7pm. In was the 1970s, it was a scary time, The National Front was on, Asians didn't want to go out for fear of getting beaten up.
WT: My parents had my three daughters in Pakistan then my dad came to England and left my mum and them there. They suffered because my dad was in this country working in the rag trade - he would send them money and it never used to filter to them. And family used to tell my dad, why don't you remarry because you already have three daughters. He saved up some money and he called my mum and sisters to come over, then we were born. We used to live upstairs.
What do the diners look like these days and how do they hear about you?
AT: Local people, friends of my dad's used to come in buy his curries. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis would come in. Because we're close to the Royal London Hospital we'd have professors and doctors come in too. Today's Friday and we've always made a Meat Biryani since we've opened. We still get people coming in saying they’ve come specially for the Biryani.
Back in the 1970s how do you think food bridged the east London communities?
AT: East London has always been community of Asians so it wasn't hard to get spices and Halal lamb and chicken. People meet at restaurants. Our restaurant back then wasn't really a dining experience. It was a cafe. No one used to go out to restaurants the way they do now. We were open from 7am to 7pm so we were known for lunch.
WT: We used to deliver up to the local warehouses.
What were some of the things your dad taught you when you were in the kitchen?
AT: My dad was very particular about prep. A knife always had its place. God help us if that knife or ladle wasn't there. The salt, chills and the zeva had pots and a spoon. We've still got that spoon. We used to make sure all the spices were full and the spoon was there.
WT: It was like military positions. All our sous chefs are taught this way too.
AT: When my dad used to cook the dry lamb curry, we used to avoid him. He was so focused, we weren't allowed to talk.
WT: It was a very sensitive time. So much love, time and sweat was given into it. It was unnecessary but he had such a passion for it, he would really concentrate. When we would prep the onions and garlic, my father could see we were efficient but he would send us back to the toilets to clean. It was like hold on, I can do this, cook this, leave me to it. But he was very much, “Your time will come.” It was a big deal when I cooked my first dry lamb curry. He didn't leave your side because he was watching. He would give us the thumbs us but he would say, do a bit of this, the timing is wrong. He would never dishearten us though. He still comes into the kitchen. Even us, when he comes into the kitchen, we get nervous.
AT: Oh my days. It's always like, look busy.
Has the kitchen gotten bigger over time?
AT: Luckily, we've always had a big kitchen, its almost too big sometimes. Do you remember when we first saw Gordon Ramsey on TV, when he did that fly on the wall documentary? He was f-ing and blinding. My dad used to swear and be angry. I used to think why was is he always aggressive? After seeing Ramsey I breathed a sigh of relief, it happens, they all do it.
WT: We used to live on top of the restaurant till about 10 years ago. Because it's an old building the floor boards are so thin so we could hear our dad shooting orders to the kitchen.
AT: The reason why my dad really pursued the restaurant business was he wanted us to all be close. When the pub came up to take over, we thought let’s just go for it. My older brother was really ambitious, he wanted us to try new things and get a bigger place. Now the restaurant is three levels with 300 seats and by us all without formal training. We’re all family trained.
Tayyab’s (83 - 89 Fieldgate Street, London, E1 1JU) was founded in 1972 and is one of London’s most loved Pakistani restaurants in the East End.