The former bartender who makes possibly the best briyani in Singapore

The last time we spoke to Zachariah Elias, now aka Zahid, formerly aka the bartender who won’t drink, he was planning to quit the bartending business. He has since changed his name, gotten super fit, been cooking at Coriander Leaf and, most excitingly, making possibly the best briyani in all of Singapore. (We tried it once, and it blew our socks off.) Browse his Instagram (@globalmatsoulkitchen) and its weird heavy metal aesthetic, and you’ll discover that his massive, weekly iftar batches (rotating among hero ingredients like goat, chicken and even stingray; available in Aljunied). Here he tells us how it all happened.

Tell us how it’s been since you quit Bar Stories. What have you been up to since?

Since walking away from the bar industry and since we last spoke, I’ve become a chef de partie with Coriander Leaf under the brilliant mentorship of Chef Samia Ahad and Chef Iskander Latiff, released a full-length album with my black metal band Tantra and maybe, just maybe; got to know a thing or two about romantic love. Oh and in my free time, I’ve begun to cook large batches of briyani under the GlobalMat Soul Kitchen banner: brown boy soul food made in the spirit of the underground. 

You once told us that you’d recite a prayer when you cook the briyani. Do you still do that?

Of course! Although it’s more supplications to God and sending salutations upon the Prophet Muhammad–peace be unto him–rather than actual prayers. It actually becomes gut-wrenchingly emotional as the constant remembrance of my Creator forces me to confront my own mortality; I start to really count my blessings and become very humble and grateful. It’s very important that in the noble act of feeding others that the process is accompanied by good thoughts and starts with the right intention. Most people can actually feel whether the food is sincere or not; especially since we’re dealing with a dish that can be classified as a true Singaporean “soul food”.

Why biryani, of all things? Was there anything in particular that triggered it?

Good briyani is hard to find because it is so difficult to make and perfect. Sometimes the cost of making it doesn’t make fiscal sense but it is what it is: Singaporean soul food descended from an immigrant tradition and loved by all the ethnic groups here. I have mentioned before in the previous interview that while studying abroad, I got screwed over by a restaurant’s promise that “more briyani will be made in the evening” only to come over later full of expectation and be severely disappointed; so I guess that was ground zero for me. But thanks to one person’s disappointment, now you all get to eat my cooking! That’s not such a bad trade-off, aye?

What’s the difference, in your opinion, between a good biryani and a sublime biryani?

That’s a tough one to call. Of course, all ingredients have to be the best that you can get your hands on and precise care and attention to detail during the process is a must but I would say the difference is feel. All variables being equal, you can pretty much follow the same recipe and two cooks can get two different results. They may both be good dishes but which one has the graceful nuance? Where is the almost-feminine sense of “je ne sais quoi”?” What about that unseen touch that caresses you once the first grains of rice and bits of masala hits your lips? Sublimity calls for more than just rote following a recipe. Every cook brings a little bit of his soul into his cooking and in my case, I pour my heart out. 

Your Instagram feed is very heavy metal looking. Why do you like that aesthetic?

It’s paying tribute to the second wave of Scandinavian blackmetal with its po-faced grimness and black/white aesthetic. The music and magical feeling of that particular era shaped my world-view somewhat and I was always enthralled by how it’s atmospheric feel conjured up so many unpainted scenes in my mind. If there’s one thing that could match the magic of good food, I would say it’s fantastic music. So I combined both these aspects and what you have is blackmetal-inspired brown boy soul food. Win!