Thursday, 28 November 2013

Babur's Indian Muslim Cooking Menu

I have reviewed South East London's Babur Indian restaurant before on my blog. That particular visit coincided with their 28th birthday celebrations, where they featured a Keralan inspired menu. You can find my review here:

In that review, I said "We just wonder what their latest menu adventure will involve!", after thoroughly enjoying their "Dealer's Choice" anniversary menu. I was therefore delighted to be invited by them to sample their latest special menu, a celebration of Indian Muslim cooking. 

This special menu will be available until 12 December 2013. It reflects the wide diversity of influence Islamic culture has brought to Indian food. Trade between the pre-Islamic Arab nations and India has existed since ancient times. Once Islam was founded, trade and travellers came to India spreading this new faith as they did around the Arabic speaking world and beyond. 

The Mughal empire of the 16th Century to the mid 18th Century is a very famous example of the Muslim influence on India. The Taj Mahal is perhaps the most obvious and dazzling example of the Mughals' achievements, known across the world. However, the earliest Muslim settlements in India date back to the 6th Century and the Delhi, Bahmani and Deccan Sultanates are further examples of Muslim power in India.

Enough history. Back to the Indian Muslim Cooking special menu! You will notice that there are no "haraam" items. Pork, blood products, and any meat from a carnivorous animal are prohibited. Many Muslims in India also refuse seafood.

First came a small treat to get us started, a little chunk of boiled potato which had been subsequently fried in herbs and spices. It doesn't sound particularly exotic or special, right? Wrong. It had a kick of heat and fabulous hints of other spices, cumin and garam masala being among them. If it is ever possible to tease the recipe for this out of the chef of Babur, I'd have this with my Sunday roast in place of roast potatoes!

My starter was the Haleem with chilli khasta roti (£7.75). I ordered this because I was intrigued by the description and had no frame of reference for such a dish.

The dish was a thick stew where the lamb neck had been slow cooked for so long it had fallen apart. There were no chunks of meat left, just small strands. The resulting gravy was therefore full of hearty, meaty flavour. Surprisingly, there was not much of the wheat, barley or the lentils, which I had expected to have bulked out the dish. The spicing was bold and had a good balanced heat; not for the chilli novice, but not too hot to blow your head up. The overall effect was of a comforting and satisfying thick and chunky soup. My only criticism is that there was only one piece of the roti. Given the amount of Haleem, at least one other piece, if not an extra two were required to slurp up the goodness.
Him Indoors went for the Chicken Malai Tikka (£6.95). 
The presentation of this dish is not done justice by this photograph. The part of the restaurant we sat in was not brightly lit and I refuse to take pictures of food with the flash on as much as possible. The colours never come out right and everything looks dead with the flash. 

The chicken was well flavoured and coated with the marinade, and thankfully the cheese was a taste which registered but did not dominate the dish. I only tried a bite of this dish, which I found lovely. Him Indoors thoroughly enjoyed it, declaring it "brilliant".

We then moved on to the main courses... 

My choice was the Nawabi biryani with salan (£15.50). I often like to order dishes which either are ones I cannot make myself or are sufficiently difficult or time consuming to make at home. True biryani is such a dish which is both difficult and time consuming. The rice cooks essentially by steaming in a sealed container, kept air and watertighted by being sealed with some chapati dough. My biryani arrived in a cute little individual pot....

I took the lid off and found, to my surprise, not rose petals, but the sight and scent of a whole rose! It felt like unwrapping a very nice present.

In many Indian restaurants, biryani is served with a vegetable curry. This is actually not traditional. The veggie curry is served for its gravy, to provide something wet to mitigate the slightly dry biryani. However, the curry accompaniment has become so ubiquitous, people have come to think of this as the real McCoy.

Babur do their best to be authentic, but clearly recognised that serving the biryani by itself might disappoint western diners used to having something moist to go with it. They solved this problem by serving the biryani with a cute little pot of spiced chicken broth.

The biryani was a real treat for me. The rice was fluffy and flavourful. There were scrumptious chunks of perfectly steamed chicken. The broth brought an intensity of chicken flavours with a touch of spice. This was a great dish which hopefully might one day make it to the main menu.

Him Indoors opted for the Lamb Rezala with steamed rice (£14.95) which he chose because it was a traditional Bengali dish. I should explain: my family's roots are Bengali and many years ago, before the Partition of India, they lived in what is now Bangladesh. Hence, the choice of a Bengali dish.

The lamb had been slow cooked until it was beautifully tender. This meant that the sauce was not only creamy and full of delicate spicing, as is typical of Bengali food, but it had that slight sweetness which is a tradition and quirk of the region. The green chilli garnish particularly pleased Him Indoors who likes his curries nice and hot, and often gets treated to some extra green chilli by my mum when he visits for dinner.

The Muslim cooking menu is a very interesting exploration of a particular influence on Indian food. I think that Babur have worked hard to bring authenticity to the dishes they have selected for the menu. We enjoyed everything we had, and received the same good service and atmosphere that we do on every visit. 

My only criticism, which is not a major issue, is that this special menu felt a little restricted. Other than lamb and chicken, there was little variety. There were no vegetarian options. No other meats, which could have been halal were available. However, what was on the menu if you like lamb and chicken was excellent. And this was a temporary menu for which I was ordering for one visit alone.

For an innovative exploration of Indian food and food culture, I would say try to catch this menu before it disappears. You can always save more adventurous meat choices for another day.
Snigdha and Him Indoors ate as guests of Babur.


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