Babani's Kurdish Restaurant
Babani's Kurdish Restaurant
544 St. Peter St., St Paul; 602-9964
It was a gray, rainy morning--the clouds were piled up thick, the birds were hidden away, the citizenry was toying with the idea of moving to St. Kit's. The phone rang. It was Dan Gilchrist, a reader who works at the state capitol--have you been to Babani's, he asked. It's Kurdish, where Ruam Mit Thai used to be, it's pretty good, sort of a cross between Greek and Indian, and then the clincher: I worry about them. My loyal reader was worried about them. Now I, too, was worried about them. I worry about so many things: what the ozone layer is up to, whether the British will all come down with mad cow disease, that we all know the frogs have three legs and yet there's no rioting in the streets. Now, the list is compounded by fears about Babani's. And concern about the dismal holes in my education. How did I get to be this old without the slightest clue about the Kurds?
So I headed to the downtown Minneapolis library, where I usually find the answers to my questions as long as I keep close watch over my valuables at all times. There I found that the Kurds live in the mountainous strip where Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran meet, that they're the largest ethnic group in the world without a state, that if they're not having their towns razed by the Turks they're getting gassed by the Iraqis, and that there are as many as 25 million of them--as the Lonely Planet put it, "Exact numbers are difficult to get, as many members of the population seem to be constantly on the move, fleeing whichever country is currently oppressing them most." It seems that Western powers don't like to pay attention to the injustices done the Kurds because they don't want to offend the Turks, who help keep the Iraqis and the Iranians under control.
While I was at the library I also did some poking into what exactly comprises Kurdish food and I found, through a couple of books, including Sheri Laizer's Into Kurdistan: Frontiers Under Fire, that it's not unlike Turkish or Syrian food--mostly bread, rice, salads, roasted or fried meats, kebabs, and fruit. Thus informed I went to Babani's, and tried nearly everything on the (admittedly short) menu. I liked the soups and salads best--especially the Dowjic (2.25), a lemon chicken soup thick with rice, and enlivened with basil and a tangy hint of yogurt. It's as thick as a minestrone, a sticks-to-your-bones-but-won't-weigh-you-down real winner of a soup. The Niskena ($1.95), a lentil soup with the texture of a thin split-pea soup, was also spicy, flavorful, and delicious. Babani's tabouli ($1.50) was good, chock full of parsley and entirely fresh. The other salads are items you'll recognize from Greek menus, and they were both good: the Jaajic ($1.95) is actually a cereal bowl of tzatziki--cucumbers, fresh dill, and garlic in yogurt, and the dinner salad ($2.95) is a bowl of iceberg lettuce with a tomato wedge, feta cheese, a pepporoncini, and red-wine vinegar dressing. Every dinner entree comes with your choice of one of these soups or salads.
The entrees, though, are less thrilling. Somehow there was something under-spiced, or under-complicated, or under-thought-through about the whole enterprise. The vegetarian Dolma ($7.95) were, according to the menu, "stuffed with rice, sunflower seeds, and special herbs, steamed in fresh garlic, lemon and tomato juices." Stuffed grape leaves are one of my all-time favorite snacks, and so I was looking forward to these--but the stuffing was simply tomato-pasty and bland, without a single herb in sight. Serving these plain-rice stuffed morsels on a bed of (perfectly cooked) basmati rice just seemed silly--like serving french fries on a bed of hash browns. The Shilas ($7.25), which change nightly, are vegetables, like green beans or chick-peas, simmered in a tasty broth, and served beside a plate of rice. One night I had the chick-pea shila, and I received a cereal bowl of just chick-peas in broth and a dinner plate of nothing but white rice--I felt like Redneck Joe lost in the land of the vegans. It's hard to believe that this is your dinner. If it were chick-pea, string bean, and potato shila, then it would seem like dinner. But this way, it just seems like you picked the short straw, so now you have to eat a side dish for dinner.
The Kubay Brinj ($7.50) is another case of rice on rice: in this case two thumb-sized rice dumplings stuffed with a bit of meat, then deep fried and served with rice. The Kifta Shorba ($7.95) again makes you feel like you drew the short straw: two tangerine-sized rice-dough balls stuffed with apparently unseasoned meat and served in a pool of thin tomato sauce.
My favorite entrees include the Sheik Babani ($8.25), an eggplant topped with a nicely pungent onion-laced meat stuffing (which itself is topped with a tasty, chunky tomato vegetable sauce) on a bed of the basmati rice, which is actually delicious if you're not worried that it's all you'll get to eat--each grain an independent unit of firm nuttiness. The shish kabobs ($8.25) change nightly and are also very good, well-grilled and lightly seasoned. Kurdish tea ($1.25) and baklava ($1.75) make up dessert, and the cardamom-scented brew is a perfect complement to the freshly made pastry.
Having been pretty much disappointed, and worrying about that disappointment, I called up Tanya Fuad, one of Babani's co-owners, for more information. Turns out that Tanya's dad is Kurdish and her mother is Minnesotan, and Tanya herself was born in Iraq, but grew up mostly here in Minnesota. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Tanya went to work in a Kurdish refugee camp in Turkey, where she met Rodwan Nakshabandi. "In the refugee camp," says Tanya, "we had to eat either the food in town--which was kind of like oil with flies landing on it--or we could eat with the refugees. Rodwan was a great cook, and he cooked for me every day in the camps. He kept telling me I can cook incredible things; his long-term goal was always to open a restaurant."
A few years passed, and Rodwan and Tanya found themselves living in Minnesota, Rodwan working as a prep cook at Buca, Tanya working on a planned book about her travels throughout Kurdistan, titled Women of a Silenced Nation. The opportunity to open the restaurant on St. Peter arose, and they served their first meals at the end of March. Rodwan does all the cooking, and Rodwan's cousin Maha bakes all of the traditional Kurdish bread. Tanya explains: "Rodwan had always said, 'If only Maha would come, it would be the perfect situation.' Then, totally by coincidence, we found out that Maha [Nakshabandi] had fled Iraq--her husband had worked for the U.S. government during the Gulf War, and after the war the U.S. evacuated about 3,000 Kurds. We found out that she was in Guam, and we contacted her and she came to Minnesota. Maha makes all the bread from scratch--she can whip up anything."
So now that you know all this aren't you worried too? Don't you desperately want them to succeed--but not at the cost of dining on big bowls of chick-peas? It's worrisome. Babani's is already a great place to experience a bit of Kurdistan-- gazing on Tanya's framed photography of Kurdistan, supping on Rodwan's lovely soups and salads, tearing chunks off Maha's bread. I'm hoping that with a little more experience in six months it will also be a great place for dinner.
TO MARKET TO MARKET: The farmers market is open again! It's at Nicollet Mall downtown on Thursdays, and at North Lyndale between Glenwood and Hwy. 55 every day. Call 333-1737 for more info. Sadly, due to the long, cold winter not too many local veggies are up yet. Though rhubarb is.
RHUBARBARIANS: No one knows exactly where the word "rhubarb" comes from, but some think it's from "rha," the old word for the Volga, on whose banks the plant grew, and "barbaria," the Latin word for a barbarous country. Wherever the word comes from, it's a good and fitting name, because rhubarb is one tough plant. Not only is it hearty enough to survive a Minnesota winter, its leaves are poisonous, its roots make a powerful laxative tea, and its stalks are sour enough to give even a strawberry cobbler a backbone. If you want to wrestle with the wolverine of vegetables, the Rhubarb Compendium is a good place to start. That's where I got this recipe for a rhubarb compote, which is a perfect accompaniment to a grilled pork loin, a roast chicken, or simply some bread and cheese.
* 2 rhubarb stalks, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
* 1 shallot, minced
* 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger root
* 2 tbsp. mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) or sherry
* 2 tbsp. white wine
Combine all compote ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the rhubarb has softened and the compote has a thick, saucelike consistency. Add water, or sugar, if necessary.
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