A faded photo hanging by the entrance of Babani's -- billed as the first Kurdish restaurant in the United States -- serves as a stark reminder that not everyone can taste the American dream. A young Kurdish woman, a budding beauty with long black tresses, poses semi-nude on a settee. She clutches white fabric to her front to modestly show the scars that zig-zag across her lower back. According to Babani's co-owner Tanya Fuad, whose friend snapped the shot in northern Iraq in 1994, the wounded woman is the daughter of a prominent Kurdish peace activist, who was seriously injured after participating in a protest against factional violence: A would-be murderer flung a hand grenade into the courtyard of her family's home.
Do not get the impression that Babani's is more appropriate for an Amnesty International meeting than a birthday celebration. Located in a stately building circa 1883 in downtown St. Paul, Minn., the restaurant's cheery coral-colored walls also display traditional sequined dresses, ornate kilims, photos of faraway mountain villages and a hand-drawn map of Kurdistan -- a "country" encompassing parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran that currently exists solely in Kurdish aspirations.
"This restaurant says 'Hello, we're Kurdish,' " says Fuad, a shapely woman with a prominent nose, a red bob and an infectious laugh. Her father, a member of the Babani tribe -- famed for "their patriotic sentiments, their fierce fighting habits and their sexual prowess," boasts the restaurant's menu -- emigrated to Minnesota in the late 1950s, settling near Minneapolis. "We were the only Kurdish family in Minnesota," Fuad recalls over a glass of syrupy Kurdish lemonade, the color of molasses. "I remember telling people in high school I was Kurdish. They would go, 'Is that in Africa?' "
To reconnect with her culture, Fuad traveled to Silopi, Turkey, in 1991 to work at a sprawling U.N. refugee camp for Iraqi Kurds. Following the Gulf War, and a nascent rebellion in northern Iraq, more than half a million Kurds took to the mountains in a desperate bid to reach Turkey, where Kurds are about as welcome as bums at a country club.
Fuad served as one of two health coordinators for the roughly 7,000 refugees living in the hastily built camp. At first there were no toilets. A typhoid epidemic struck. Many people suffered from dysentery. Baton-wielding Turkish police kept order and extracted bribes. Pleasures were few, unless you happened to dine in Rodwan Nakshabandi's tent.
"When I first met Rodwan he was cooking for all the single men who missed mama's cooking," Fuad says. "His food was the best in the camp."
Upon her return to Minnesota, Fuad sponsored Nakshabandi's application to emigrate to the United States. She found him a job in a diner, then in the kitchen of a popular St. Paul trattoria. In 1997, Fuad dropped out of chiropractic school, Nakshabandi quit his job and Babani's was born.
"We had no idea what we were doing," admits Fuad.
But that's no longer the case, judging by a recent meal at Babani's.
A few dishes stand out: dewjic, a tangy soup with chicken, yogurt, rice, basil, lemon and a chili pepper kick ($6.50); kubay sawar, a crispy cracked wheat, fist-sized dumpling stuffed with lean ground beef, minced onions, walnuts and parsley ($11.75); and sheik babani, the specialty of the house ($12.75). Named after the striped dress pants once worn by tribal leaders, the dish features a baked purple eggplant filled with ground beef and myriad spices with a crushed tomato sauce on a bed of basmati rice.
"We lean toward grandma's cooking," says Fuad.
Surprisingly, the menu lacks lamb, a staple of Kurdish cooking. "American lamb has a strong flavor and a strong smell and I used to be a vegetarian, so I find it hard to deal with," explains Nakshabandi, a gentle fellow with graying hair and a small mustache, who joins Fuad and me for a pot of aromatic Kurdish tea.
Infused with cardamom and atra, an herb grown in the mountains of Central Asia, the tea's scent momentarily transports Nakshabandi back to his homeland, to his march in the mountains when he survived on nothing but bread scraps and water for four days, to the month he unwillingly served as tank driver in the Iran-Iraq War before going AWOL, and to his teenage years when he occasionally cooked for Kurdish guerrillas called Peshmerga, which Fuad translates as "those who face death." Nakshabandi shoots his business partner and friend a smile. "I don't want to face death," he says softly. "I want to live -- and eat."
-- David Wallis
Babani's Kurdish Restaurant, 544 St. Peter St., St. Paul, Minn., 651-602-9964, www.babanis.com. Dinner for one runs about $30, excluding drinks.