I don’t remember when or how I first learned of Babani’s, a Kurdish restaurant on the edge of downtown St. Paul. If you don’t know, the Kurds are a people whose ancestral territories (Kurdistan) are now split between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia–their culture and cuisine have affinities with those of these countries, but they are a culturally and linguistically distinct people. I do not think I can be challenged for saying that Kurdish food is not over-represented in the United States. (Babani’s claims to be the first Kurdish restaurant in the country, which would suggest that there are others; a recent Google search, however, indicates that Babani’s may in fact be the only one right now.) We’ve eaten at Babani’s for at least a decade, though less since moving to Minneapolis. (On a recent visit, Steve, as he plowed through our shared appetizer, remarked “I forgot how much I liked this.” I suspect we’ll be going back more often.) Kurdish food shares some characteristics with Turkish and other eastern Mediterranean cuisine, but just because you’ve been to your local Greek joint, don’t think you’ve eaten this before.
Our favorite starter is the Naska Nan We Panir, which features an extremely good bread, the best feta I’ve eaten in the United States, cucumber, tomato, and olives. (Various of the components can be ordered separately, but the combination is such a good deal, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t order it.)
Entrees come with either soup (there are three choices) or salad (again, several choices). The soups I’ve tried have all been excellent. The Niskena is a mild, comforting lentil soup. I usually get the Dowjic, a chicken based soup that has a definite tart-sour note–exactly what makes Thai Tom Yum so appealing, but this bears little resemblance to the Thai soup otherwise. It is, in my opinion, a perfect antidote to a Minnesota winter evening. As I said, entrees come with soup or salad, but a good case can be made for ordering both. My favorite salad is billed as a “traditional silopi” salad. Think hearty salsa, Kurdish style: herbs, cucumber, and tomato–somehow good here even in winter. It complements everything on the menu, and it is characterized by bright, sharp flavors that also make it a perfect summer dish.
There is a good selection of entrees, several of which are either vegetarian or can easily be made so. The one I always gravitate to is the Chicken Tawa, a dish made with chicken, potatoes, and preserved lemon, served with rice. (The idea that two starches shouldn’t occur in the same dish is definitely western, but it fades as you move east of the Aegean Sea; my understanding is that real Indian cuisine doesn’t recognize such a rule at all.) The preserved lemon gives the dish a good flavor without the sharpness of fresh lemon juice.
On two recent visits, Steve ordered the Kubay Brinj, a plate of a kind of rice fritter filled with spiced ground beef. He seemed throughly satisfied, by which I mean he cleaned his plate. I always intend to sample this dish, but I’m usually too busy eating my chicken. A few other things: Babani’s has no bar, but I–unusually–don’t mind: I always want their house lemonade, made with preserved lemons. It is an iced-tea-colored beverage that adds a note of bitterness to the lemon flavor. It is just sweet enough, but absolutely fascinating too. Babani’s is in a charming and clean, if small, space. There is only street parking, but that is not as hard to find as one might think in this part of St. Paul. Service has always been friendly, and I have never had a bad meal here. I should also mention that this is a fairly inexpensive restaurant–a recent dinner for two (including a shared appetizer, two soups, an additional salad, two entrees, two Kurdish lemonades, and one soft drink) came to around $50 including tip, and everything was fantastic. There are other Kurdish restaurants, but not (or at least not many) in the United States. If you live here and want to try Kurdish food, you should come to Babani’s in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Review by Chris Nappa