The Sheeryakh Spot Bringing Afghan Culture And Community To London
All Sam Bagshi asks for is one chance. From his shop Watani Sheeryakh in Ilford, East London, the 30-year-old serves the Afghan frozen dessert sheeryakh – white, icy peaks that melt in your mouth, leaving you with delicate notes of rose and cardamom. “Afghan people give you one chance. If you fail that one chance, [their] grandad back home will know that you failed,” Bagshi says with a laugh. Luckily, his sheeryakh doesn’t disappoint – in fact, he pauses our interview to give a taster to a curious passerby, who exclaims: “I’m definitely gonna get some of this!” According to Bagshi, that happens all the time.
Sheeryakh looks like snowy mountaintops and tastes like sweet air – light, subtly floral, impossible to get enough of. Literally translating to ‘cold milk’, it is made differently to ice cream or gelato. There are no freezers involved, and it’s a labour-intensive process. Bagshi boils fresh milk, sourced directly from a dairy farm, and mixes it with spices to create a fragrant, milky concoction. Then he pours it into a long, metal bucket that’s been shipped from Afghanistan. He surrounds the bucket with ice and salt, and shakes the bucket against the ice, encouraging the milk to freeze and stick to its walls. He continues the process until all of it is frozen. Finally, he scrapes the sheeryakh in upward motions, and sculpts it beautifully into a serving cup.
Bagshi’s sheeryakh is so good that it was recently crowned best ice cream in London by food writer Ruby Tandoh for Vittles – a publication that showcases the food that makes the city a more interesting (and delicious) place to eat. For Bagshi, who comes from a family of restaurateurs spanning generations, the accolade is a “blessing”. He throws it back to his father’s belief in “the American Dream, but in London. I believe it a lot, as well.”
Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Bagshi left the country with his family while he was a baby in the ’90s. “There was a time in 1992 when there were 1,500 rockets falling on Kabul in one night,” he says. “My mom says that if we were still in Afghanistan, maybe half of us wouldn’t survive.” In 1996, the family arrived in Enschede – a town in the Netherlands where refugees were welcome – before finally settling in London in 2005. Now, in 2023, Bagshi runs Watani Sheeryakh and his takeaway joint WataniBox, just around the corner. Though his recipes don’t stray far from Kabul, he’s managed to put a uniquely London spin on traditional cuisine.
At Watani Sheeryakh, for example, Bagshi tops the sheeryakh with pistachio cream and baklava, inspired by his wife’s Turkish upbringing. And at WataniBox, he was influenced by the city’s ubiquitous chicken shops, where patrons eat on the go from cardboard boxes. “I had this box idea – it’s the kind of food that can only flourish in London,” he says. He has received some backlash from purists. “People think serving food in a box like this is disrespectful. Like the food should be served on a gold plate!” he laughs.
Of course, for him, it’s about more than just good food. Since opening Watani Sheeryakh in 2019, Bagshi says: “I built a community around my ice cream shop. That stuff that you see [on the news] doesn’t make you happy about Afghanistan, but it’s the truth.” By serving up the most delectable scoops in London, Bagshi aims to change people’s perceptions. “Hopefully, people will think, ‘OK that’s happening there, but the people here are really nice and are serving the best food,’” he concludes. After all, he only needs one chance to prove it.
Click here to read Sam Bagshi’s recipe for traditional Afghan dish, qabuli palow.
Mia Nazareno is a Filipino-American fashion, food and culture writer based in London