Gunpowder's lockdown-driven offshoot concentrates on creating a celebratory sharing biryani that commemorates memories of India at home. Caroline Baldwin orders in.
London has been home to Gunpowder's two Indian restaurants for more than five years, both serving up a modern take on home-style Indian cooking with traditional flavours.
Over the multiple lockdowns, like many other operators, Gunpowder launched new revenue streams through its takeaways and meal kits, where customers can order a Kashmir lamb roast to be delivered nationwide.
But the silver lining of lockdown has given co-founder Harneet Baweja and his team time to launch a brand new idea that had been on his mind for many years – a spin-off brand focused purely on an Indian classic, the biryani.
"We sat down and thought ‘how can we do this in a way that comes across as a celebration feast?' Because cooking a biryani is labour-intensive, it requires a lot of patience and everything needs to come together to make that one dish that is brilliant and beautiful – and a good biryani can be sublime," Baweja says.
A good biryani can be sublime
After several months of experimentation, Empire Biryani officially launched last month to fill what Baweja believes is a large gap in the market.
Empire Biryani offers two types of biryanis – lamb shank or mushroom. "I like lamb because you can bite into it, but the mushroom also has a meaty texture," Baweja says. "We tinkered with a lot with recipes borrowed from family and friends, and the most important thing is the rice. It's like sushi: you have to get the rice right, and our head chef is the best rice chef on this island – he really nails it."
He describes how biryanis, flavoured with saffron and slow-cooked meats, are traditionally made for big celebrations, family gatherings and royal events. "It was a challenge to get that dish you make for 50 or 100 people for two, while keeping that honesty and tradition."
The dishes are served with a shortcrust pastry lid, called a dum biryani (traditionally made with an inedible dough that is usually discarded). The pastry lid has a two-fold advantage – it serves as a vessel to mop up the rice and gravy from the accompanying side dishes and it also traps in steam, which helps achieve that perfectly cooked rice, even when customers are finishing off the cooking process at home.
Baweja says that bringing the dish to the table and cutting into the pastry to release the aromas is all part of the authentic biryani experience. He adds: "You go to a restaurant to be wowed, and we wanted to bring that experience to you in a way that makes you feel it's the same as in the restaurant."
The pared-back menu allows the new brand to focus on the main event. Baweja explains: "When you go out for biryani, everything else is secondary. It's like when you go out for steak: the mash and greens are essential, but you go for the steak."
That said, there is certainly nothing secondary when it comes to Empire Biryani's sides, especially the succulent beef boti kebab, which Baweja ate growing up in Calcutta. After a little persuasion he explains that the secret is marinading the beef in a little rosewater, a recipe that can be traced back 300 years.
"The flavour in that marination reminds me of home; it transports me to a wedding," he says. "There you have the pastry of the biryani being cut open, and the steam coming out and everyone's there with a plate trying to get their share."
Choosing the small number of side dishes on the menu was not dissimilar to choosing a favourite child, but in the end Baweja says it was a very democratic process – "we went back to nostalgia – what do we miss eating with it?"
Alongside the biryani is Empire's version of a North Indian paneer butter masala and a Hyderabadi egg salan, which is Baweja's comforting version of a pickled egg from the local chippy. "I'm a guy who likes my sides. The salan goes well with the rice, and the gravy is incredible to mop up with the pastry. And the beef boti, in another life, could be a main event on its own."
The self-confessed romantic shares his dream to open a chain of more accessible café-style Empire Biryanis when the world returns to some sort of normality, hinting that he would turn his beef boti into a sandwich with lightly toasted soft Indian bread with chutney and onions, a dream his many customers are hoping becomes a reality.
Empire Biryani at Gunpowder, 4 Duchess Walk, Tower Bridge, London SE1 2SD
From the menu
- Paneer tikka
- Kalimirch and malai chicken kebab
- Lamb biryani
- Shahi mushroom biryani
- Paneer butter masala
- Saag gosht
- Hyderabadi aubergine salan
- Punjabi chana asala
- Triple chocolate brownie
From £35 for a meal for two. Sides, from £3.95. Delivery, £8
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