Babur - an adventure in southern Indian food!

idli with three chutneys
Like fine wines, and occasionally the French rugby team, Londoners don't travel very well. What I mean to say is that whether you are London-born or London by adoption (of which I am talking about myself) we are not very good at moving out of our own little territories. Yes, we may travel to the City or to Westminster or central London for work, or go shopping in the West End. But mostly we like to stick to our own little patches. Frankly, unless we are rioting, and there's a JD Sports, we don't move very far from our home manors.

No seriously, we don't. Especially after the age of about say 35 when frankly the novelty of travelling to new places and partying around London has worn off. Shame on us.

For years, some friends of mine have been telling me about a restaurant in south London that they thought I should visit. To which I would shudder. It made me feel twitchy. There be dragons . . . Would I need a passport? Would I be allowed back in again to north London or would I have somehow lost my north London privilege after venturing south of the river? Shame on me.

Babur is a glorious little restaurant in (the wilds of) south London. Forest Hill to be exact. It is an absolute gem, a jewel. And the irony for me is that it turns out that it takes only half an hour to get to there by train from where I live in the depths of north London. ARGH! Seriously it takes me longer to get to work. Shame, shame, shame.

And now I have found it, I shall never let it go!

Now in the interests of partiality and full disclosure I have to tell you that a friend of mine designs their website. So when an invitation came to taste some new dishes that the restaurant was just thinking about putting on their menu . . . would I be interested in coming along since they knew how much I like food, it would have seemed rude not to accept.

Imagine if you will the old smoothie jazz song . . . heaven, I'm in heaven . . . Yes, the food definitely filled me with a sense of unholy joy.

I don't usually write restaurant reviews. Largely because I think that there are a hell of a lot of people out there who do it so much better than I could. However in this case I must make an exception. This place is truly exceptional and that was just with their "we are not sure if this will work but we are trying it out" south Indian tasting menu. It was a marvellous way to spend an afternoon.

So let me try to give you a little taster of what I was lucky enough to experience. Do you know, as I am typing this up, this is making me hungry all over again. Sigh.

So let us begin with some starters - something to get your taste buds into gear.

We began with a starter of fried idli. I had never had them before although I was aware that these are usually served at breakfast. But why limit them to breakfast? These were delicious little flying saucers of cake made from a rice batter and served with three very different chutneys - my particular favourite being a spicy cashew nut and ginger one. As the first taster of the afternoon, this dish really made quite an impressive entrance - it looked like a rather pretty artist's palette - the sort of dish that if you had seen it being served to someone else, you would have been craning to see more and would have asked the waiters what it was. Rupam, the restaurant manager also told me that the chutneys are usually served towards the end of a meal with popadoms before the sweet course in Indian homes, to cleanse the palate (rather than in the typical English way of having them as an appetiser before the starter). So not only was I tasting fantastic food, I was learning something new too, which is always a winner for me.

The idli was followed by a seafood rasam - a sort of Indian fish soup. Now fish soup is usually something I avoid. Not that I don't like fish. I do, but for some reason I am not wild about fish soups. Actually, if I am honest, not usually that keen on fish curries either, but this dish turned all my former prejudices on their head. This tomato- and tamarind-based, chilli hot, peppery broth with was filled with small morsels of squid, octopus and mussels. It was an intensely rich burnt umber colour, flecked with green and served with "croutons" of deep fried idli. This turned out to be my favourite tasting of the day. It had fresh, clean flavours that got my taste buds in a bit of a tizzy.

I loved the tangy citrus flavour of the tamarind with tomato. There was a little coconut milk to just soften the zestier edges, which worked beautifully with the seafood. It was a bit like a sunken treasure chest, as with each spoonful, you were never sure what you were going to find – a bit of squid? A mouthful of mussel? One of the absolute joys of this soup was that every mouthful tasted a bit different. It was almost as if you were on a journey of flavours in one dish. First tangy, then spicy, then sweet - although the combination of spice and heat didn’t linger (perhaps the cooling effect of coconut).

The soup was followed by a delicious dry-fried chicken dish, called subha koli - a glorious, but subtle combination of a whole gamut of herbs and spices that are typically used in southern Indian cooking cashews, ginger, garlic, chillies, fennel seed, mustard seeds, cardamom, coriander, coconut, curry leaf, cassia bark and a touch of black pepper.

Probably my second favourite tasting of the day was lamb chops, coated with ground cashew nuts and warm spices (black pepper, cassia, fennel and coriander) with a bit of tomato. It had a mild, slightly sweet and intensely meaty flavour and was of course, delicious.

I suppose I can't carry on frankly what is sounding a bit like a hagiography of the cooking at Babur, so I can tell you that the first of the main courses was a soft-shell crab curry, cooked with onions and cashew nuts and hints of cardamom, black pepper and fennel seeds. While it did taste very good indeed, it looked a bit peculiar - a bit like a deflated rubber glove (or something from a sci-fi movie!) But I must repeat the fact that it was packed full of flavour and perhaps I just need to a bit more of an education on the joys of soft-shell crab.

The next seafood curry, meen kolampur, was a tomato-based dal with tamarind, ginger, garlic, chilli, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and red snapper. I am not sure that I have ever had urad dal (tiny, nutty lentils) but I am a convert to the cause and have spent the last few weeks trying to track some down.

The next main course was something of a revelation for me. I have never, ever ordered a chicken korma dish in a restaurant. I am scarred by memories of old-fashioned curry houses trying to cater to staid British tastes back in the bad old days! This was when a korma was a beige (or sometimes orange), gloopy and sickly sauce. It was always overly sweet and was usually eaten by people who weren’t very adventurous. Bastards! They ruined things for the rest of us! Well it was quite clear that I had never had the genuine southern Indian article. This coconut milk-based dish included a cashew nut paste and was sweetened with mild spices such as cassia. It was a pale sort of eau de nil colour, a sort of paint colour chart of “white-with-the-merest-hint-of-green”. I am not sure that I am really doing it justice but what I will admit is that I am wrong about never ordering a korma if this is what they can taste like. The cashew nut paste coating the chicken, together with coconut milk and a hint of ginger and green chilli allowed the chicken flavours to also shine through. Nor was it too sweet, just gently aromatic.

The korma was followed by a less sophisticated lamb curry or therakkal – the sort of meal that "mamajee" used to make - a hearty lamb stew with ginger, coconut oil, cardamom, garlic, chilli, fennel seeds, black pepper, lots of onion, topped with deep-fried coconut slices. Another winner.

I left Babur some four hours later with a sense of purpose (I need to find out more about the traditions of southern Indian cooking) and a firm intention to return, dragging my north London friends (whether kicking or screaming) to one of the best Indian restaurants in London. This place is an absolute find!

I realise that a good restaurant review should tell you about the interior, the quality of the glasswear and linen; the toiletary arrangements (very good, by the way). But frankly, I am exhausted. Replete with the memories of a really fabulous tasting. I think I need to go and lie down . ..


Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

sounds like a divine place... and you're so right about our territories... since I moved out of London though I have come to think of it as a group of small villages, each with their own little quirks and personalites... and now i'm hungry for curry!

Pear Tree Log said...

You have made me hungry. It sounds as though it was amazing food. Darn it, I am going to have to rummage in the pantry now.

Kavey said...

Isn't it always the way... the place you'd love to have as your local neighbourhood restaurant is ... NOT!


Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Well if any of you guys feel like a trip to south London, this place comes highly recommended. So much so that I just been back, and it was just as good second time round!

Maggie said...

My daughter lives in South East London I will pass this little gem onto her.
Question? Did you used to blog about 5 years ago and have now started to blog again?

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Maggie - the restaurant is just around the corner from Honor Park Station.

Blimey you have a good memory! I blogged for a year at until I got badly hacked and lost the lot, including the site. It has taken me this long to get my act together and start writing again. It is lovely to see you back!!!

Maggie said...

Can you remember that there were only 25 of us on The Foodie UK bloggers list - look at it now!!!
Pleased you are back again blogging.

Pear Tree Log said...

I passed on your recommendation to my daughter and her husband as they were spending the weekend in South London. Saturday evening saw them at Babur's - I'm not sure what they ordered, but apparently it was all delicious and they would certainly recommend it too. Many thanks!

Joanna @ Zeb Bakes said...

Hi Rachel, so pleased you introduced yourself!. This suounds like a delightful restaurant. We used to go to Diwanas and Rav Shankar in Drummond Street a fair bit again when under 35 (!) and some very fine vegetarian southern indian restaurants in Tooting too. There is only one of these in Bristol, which does dosas and idlis and interesting fried bananas and, possilbly one you would be amused by - a beetroot bhaji :) I think you are a natural at restaurant reviewing. Bye for now!

tasteofbeirut said...

sounds like a fun place!

Raniya Sheikh said...

it seems nice resturant and i must say you have a stronge follow up.
Best curry in Manchester