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Good morning, and welcome to Vittles Ice Cream Week, a four-part celebration of ice cream in London written by Ruby Tandoh.
This is the third article in the series. To read the first part of the project, Beyond Gelato, please click here. To read the London Ice Cream index - a Top 16 of London ice cream - please click here.
To read the rest of the project, and have access to the entire Vittles back catalogue, please subscribe for either £5/month or £45 for a whole year. All Vittles contributors are paid through user donations, so thank you for your support.
The Vittles Ice Cream Project
1. Beyond Gelato
2. The London Ice Cream Index
3. From 343 scoops to one
4. The Vittles Ice Cream Awards, and maybe a little map (coming Friday)
London’s best ice cream, by Ruby Tandoh
Watching Sam Bagshi make sheeryakh is like seeing the body-object synthesis of a great drummer in action. At Watani Sheeryakh, his Afghan ice cream shop in Ilford, he shimmies crab-like around the counter, setting himself up in the tiny nook where he makes – from scratch, by hand and to order – up to 300 ice creams a day. He pours his cardamom- and rose-infused milk base into a bow-bottomed bucket surrounded with salt and ice. Seizing the rim of the metal pan with both hands, he rotates it briskly one way then another with the light, twisting agility of a jive. Out comes a paddle and the splashing begins: an arm is thrust into the depths of the churn and flicks the cooled mixture against the walls of the bucket where it freezes instantly, ice cream accreting in translucent milky layers. He does this again and again, the percussive shake, rattle, splash and scrape punctuating the plaintive melodies of Faiz Karizi playing over the speakers.
At this point the sheeryakh is technically edible, but it isn’t yet sublime. What comes next is a laborious smoothing process during which any nascent ice crystals are beaten out of the mixture. Sam scrapes the now-frozen sheeryakh into a ball before kneading it in long, wave-like strokes against the edges of the copper pan. (This is difficult – I’ve tried it – and the teenagers who Sam hires to fill in for him never seem to last more than a few days.) He works it until the icy striations collapse into creaminess then scoops a heavy cloud of it and inverts the paddle, the ice cream clinging firm to the cool metal. “See – it doesn’t drop.” Sam serves the sheeryakh, teasing it from the paddle first a lot, then a little, then a tiny bit, before pulling deftly away so that the ice cream comes to a tapering peak.
The resulting sheeryakh is implausible: a dense, matte cloud; a shock of pristine milkiness; heavy cream that transmutes into cool, clean air, with the kind of sweetness that dances nimbly across your tongue. It has an ephemeral floral edge and a brightening note of cardamom. It’s topped with pistachios and almond rubble and, if you are lucky, a drizzle of the qaimaq (Afghan clotted cream). This is as good an evocation of pure milk as any fior di latte gelato in Rome, Florence or Bologna.
In London, there are a small number of restaurants and specialist ice cream parlours selling sheeryakh, a reflection of a sizable and growing Afghan population, but it’s not an ice cream that has particularly travelled beyond the immediate community. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. A food doesn’t have to be mainstream to be successful, and Sundaes in Harrow seems to sell more sheeryakh on a grey Monday afternoon than any Amorino (and with better vibes). Still, I feel passionately about sheeryakh because it is, spoon for spoon, the best variety of ice cream in the city. Because of the way it’s churned to order, it is always served at its best. Because it is not something a vendor can land upon by default, its makers tend to be very serious about what they do. But even in a city full of great sheeryakh – Sundaes and Kabul Sheeryakh in Hendon stand out – Watani Sheeryakh’s is a level above. It is like a dream of a dream of a McFlurry: an expression of milk, gently sweet, lightly perfumed, with a gossamer texture that could only come from exhausting, muscular graft. In the residential backstreets of Ilford, Sam is making not just the best sheeryakh but the best ice cream, full stop, in the whole of London.
“In Afghanistan, every family comes from something,” Sam told me. “Our family comes from restaurants.” Sheeryakh runs in the family – his great-grandfather ran a sheeryakh shop in Kabul. His grandfather, Mullah Akbar Khan (whose grainy photo hangs on the wall of the shop) had a restaurant in Murad Khane, Kabul’s old town, and his dad, Maruf Bagshi, followed him into the restaurant business too. Sam was born in Kabul in the early 1990s before his family left Afghanistan as refugees, settling for over a decade in Enschede in the Netherlands and then moving to East London in 2004. There were more restaurants: Afghan Kebab House in East Ham, then a second branch in Newham, before Maruf – overworked, exhausted – decided in 2016 that he was done with the restaurant business for good. By 2019, he was back at it: Sam had been working on an idea for a takeaway modernising Afghan food, a counter to some of the formality of traditional London Afghan restaurants. He drew inspiration from the taut efficiency of McDonald’s production systems, using modern methods to reintroduce a younger crowd to qabuli palow, chapli kebabs and mantu. With the help of Sam’s sister, Marina, Watani Box was born. A couple of years later, they opened Watani Sheeryakh just around the corner.
It took four months to perfect the sheeryakh. Sam left Afghanistan as a baby, so had to rely on Maruf’s memories and his own intuition to feel his way towards an authentic taste. Sam’s parents shared what they knew (Sam showed me a video of his mum helping him churn sheeryakh, during lockdown, at home in big plastic buckets). But British milk – skimmed, pasteurised, homogenised – didn’t behave the same way as the fresh milk back in Kabul. Sam watched documentaries about how milk here is sourced and produced. He agonised over the precise number of minutes to soak peppercorns in the milk to neutralise any musty milkiness without imparting the heat of the pepper. He was adamant that he didn’t want to add milk powder. (“It makes the sheeryakh yellow, and you can feel it in your throat.”) All of this has paid off. Afghan customers can be sceptical, Sam tells me. “But I give them one spoon and they shut their mouth. They say it’s the same texture, the same creaminess, as back home.”
On the walls are old photos of Kandahar, lines of traffic snaking around Kabul’s Massoud Circle, the statues of Bamiyan. Sam plays music in every language spoken in Afghanistan and from all the big stars of the golden age. He is savvy about the nostalgic appeal of this kind of food. “People want to remember the ’50s and ’60s, before war, before conflict.” But although this is unapologetically Afghan ice cream, it is also a profoundly London ice cream, speaking to the demographic and cultural sensibilities of the area it is in. Sam follows the halal fast food and dessert scenes in London with great enthusiasm, and the maximalist creativity of this new generation comes through in his approach. Traditionally, sheeryakh is served with nuts and qaimaq and, sometimes, with jala – angel hair-like noodles which freeze and crunch in contact with the ice. Sam still serves it this way, but his bestseller is the Watani Special: an elaborate construction of baklava (exacting as ever, he asks the bakery to make it with less syrup, joking that he saves them money), pistachios, almonds and homemade pistachio sauce. On Valentine’s Day there is a lurid bubblegum pink sundae, while a brief foray into Salt Bae-dom had him making a “24-carat gold” gold-leaf adorned sheeryakh. (He sold two.) It’s hard to imagine a more London ice cream than this.
“We used to have just Afghans come in here, but now there are Turkish people, Gujaratis, British people. And nobody hasn’t loved it.” Sam has plans to expand the business, but he wants to do things the right way. He recently put up an Afghan flag outside the shop: a beacon for the local community. In a photo he posted on Instagram, he swings the flag in a broad, cursive loop while standing on the roof.
A note on Watani Sheeryakh’s opening hours: I’d advise checking on Google, the Watani Box Instagram and, if you’re in any doubt or if you have a long journey ahead, calling in advance of your visit. Sam makes his sheeryakh base fresh every day: once it’s sold out, it’s sold out, and Sam will close for the day. Other times, juggling commitments at Watani Box (their takeaway around the corner, which you should also go to) he arrives a little late.
The Vittles Ice Cream Project is written by Ruby Tandoh, photographed by Michaël Protin, illustrated by Heedayah Lockman, edited by Adam Coghlan and Jonathan Nunn, and copy edited by Liz Tray and Sophie Whitehead.