We stroll into Tayyab’s at half past two on a Monday – a time we’ve picked because we’re hoping to catch them at a quiet moment. “Yeah,” Aleem says, over the noise, “our Monday is like another restaurant’s Friday.” He’s one of the three brothers who inherited the famous curry house – and its cult following – from their dad, the original Mr Tayyab.
We watch as a steady stream of local workers, families and students step into this Punjabi paradise for a late lunch. The punters and the staff are all smiles, the air is full of conversation and the tantalising smell of spices. It’s a far cry from the chaos of Friday and Saturday nights, when competition for a table is elevated to an almost Olympic level. But let’s get back to Aleem.
“We all had an apprenticeship with my dad. He was tough. You know Gordon Ramsay? I actually saw my dad behaving like that so many years before, and I thought my dad was really hard. Overly hard. But over the years I’ve realised, in the kitchen that’s how it goes. That’s how you work, that’s how you rule and get things done. You’ve got to be hard and strict.”
The regime in the kitchen is a little more relaxed now, but Aleem has memories of a very tight ship. “My dad used to like all of his knives in order. All of the spices had to be ready for him. He had his own special ladles and measuring spoons. God forbid someone lost that measuring spoon – that was the worst. He’d come in, everything would be there – his tools, his karahis, his pots. Then he’d start cooking.”
Speaking of the kitchen, it’s surprisingly small for such a massive operation, but it’s a well-oiled machine. These days they conjure up an incredible 2,000 naan breads a day from a single oven and they’ve lost count of the number of tables. Tayyab’s started out small, with just eight tables in the restaurant until 1996. Then, after an overhaul to turn four different premises into one, Tayyab’s as we know it today was born. But what was it like in the early days?
“We used to serve breakfast, because at first the bit that my dad took over was a greasy spoon cafe. Next door used to be an old seamen’s rest – now it’s funky apartments – and my dad started out selling tea and toast to the older army and navy gentlemen. Every morning he’d get two loaves of bread, toast them with a bit of butter and some tea. They had a vending machine for tea but they didn’t like it, so my dad used to make them fresh tea. That’s where it all started. Tea and toast.”
So, Mr Tayyab might have made an inconspicuous start, but it didn’t last long. “Because he liked cooking, my dad started off making a pot of curry – it was mainly for himself – and gradually he started giving to his friends. Word got around that at Tayyab’s, he makes a mean curry. At the time this area was all the rag trade – factories and wholesalers, some of them almost sweatshops, and they used to come in for lunch. My dad would do a nice lunch and close at 7pm. It was a twelve hour shift – hard graft – and then that’s your lot.”
Fast forward to 2016: the restaurant has grown and Whitechapel is almost unrecognisable. But what about the menu, has it moved with the times?
“No. The menu’s stayed the same; so have the daily specials. For instance today’s Monday – we make the Nihari. My dad started that thirty years ago. Our meat biryani – which we only do on a Friday – people have been coming for years for the biryani. Some people have favourites – Wednesday is meat pilau. All the local businesses that are still around, and even some that left the area – they all come back for the meat pilau.
“The dry meat, that’s our signature dish. I can still remember my dad cooking the dry meat. It’s such hard work, you have to stay on it. It’s not something you can leave and come back to – you have to be on it – and it takes several hours.”
Aleem can’t help but smile as he takes us on a trip down memory lane, “My dad was so proud of that dish. We had a sign board, that we used to hand-write the daily specials on – my dad used to say ‘Don’t forget the dry meat!’. That’s what I used to do in the morning – come in at eleven and write the daily specials. Dry meat always stayed at number one.”
This is what’s at the real heart of Tayyab’s: the commitment to preserving authentic flavours and recipes, but also to preserving the memory of Mr Tayyab himself. You can see how important it is to Aleem, and everyone else who works there.
“Definitely. We pride ourselves, it’s authentic. If you compare us with a restaurant in Lahore in Pakistan, our food would be the same, or maybe better. Friends that visit us from Pakistan say, ‘This food is awesome, it’s better than home.’”
Perhaps a mark of the quality of the food is that, depending on who you talk to, Tayyab’s is known for having multiple signature dishes. We asked Aleem about those famous lamb chops: “It’s true, they’re just…” He gestures, struggling to put into words how awesome they are. “There’s so much love that goes into the making of them. The way that the marinade brings out the flavours of the meat… We are very, very proud of them.”
And so they should be, they’re incredible. That pride is part of what makes Tayyab’s more than a restaurant – it’s a part of the community. When we step outside with Aleem to take his picture, he knows every single person who walks past, and they know him.
“My brother Waseem is head chef – there’s no changes without his permission. Everything gets checked. We get our fruit and vegetables from Spitalfields market [a stone’s throw down Commercial Road]. We’ve been with them for about thirty years. They know what we want and they source the best for us. That’s the key, especially the meat and chicken, the spices, the onions… everything has to be spot on. In the olden days, my dad used to tell his friends or any relatives coming to London from Pakistan ‘Bring some spices!’, but now it’s so much easier to get them here.”
Tayyab’s is a living monument to the idea that if you keep doing things the right way, people will eventually come around to your way of thinking. Aleem recalls some (deeply flawed) business advice his dad received in the early years:
“In the beginning, people used to say to my dad, ‘Mr Tayyab, why don’t you make your dishes less spicy, so you’ll get more customers – more Western customers?’ My dad would say to them, ‘I’d rather close my business. I’d rather not cook. I’m going to cook it the right way, or I’m not going to cook it.’ Now people ask for it to be made hotter. Now they’re used to spices. Imagine a time where people never used to have spices? Now people say ‘Could you make it hotter?’”
So there you have it – the secret to almost half a century of cult status. And as we tuck into those transcendent lamb chops, we say here’s to another fifty years.