the mughal empire has fascinated me since i was a little girl. i was named afte the famous mughal empress begum nur jehan. nur jehan (literally light of the world) was a titular name with her real name as mehrunnisa, which is what mama chose for me. my brother murad is also named after a mughal prince. i read mughal history at school and in the summer vacations mama took us to the mughal architectural wonders in lahore fort. now, years later as i write about food i recall bits and pieces from the baburnama, especially his pining for afghanistan. he lamented the food, especially the fruit of afghanistan. of hindustan he writes ‘hindustan is a country of few charms. there are no good-looking people, there is no social intercourse, no receiving or paying of visits, no genius or manners. in its handicrafts there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. there are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or food cooked in the bazaars (my emphasis), no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks’. i am certain though that if emperor babur were to time travel and take the over ground to honour oak park station to dine at his namesake restaurant he would be pleasantly surprised by the distance that indian cuisine has travelled. the wine flights matched to the different courses would indulge his love for wine and if he is feeling particularly adventurous he could have an indian inspired cocktail. the mango brulee would be a perfect sweet conclusion and celebration of one of the few sub-continental fruits he loved. he would also be pleased with the art and design concepts of the restaurant especially the large kalamkari that flanks the entrance, a workmanship that was introduced and patronised by the mughal’s during their reign.
brockley’s local indian babur restaurant is a far cry from the neon signed ones that grace most neighbourhoods in london. this is a place for the sophisticated eater and drinker. i have rarely seen such attention to detail in a local neighbourhood restaurant. everything was perfectly executed and aside from one of two small suggestions babur is most definitely one of the best indian dinners that m and i have had. m and i were guests at babur so i keenly observed the dinner service. the restaurant was quite busy for a monday evening and the attentiveness that we received was the same that other fellow diners received through the course of the evening.
the menu at babur is by no means ordinary. aside from featuring unusual meats like ostrich, it also revisits conventional indian dishes by complimenting them with british combinations. m’s tamarind glazed quail breast came perched on a traditional british bubble and squeak punctuated by commas of tamarind sauce. he had wanted the ostrich soole but unfortunately the supply of the meat had been disrupted from south africa. i was taken by the description of the beetroot cutlet, papaya chutney. both m and i agreed that this starter was the star of the evening. the cutlets themselves were a soft and silky affair with a robust crunch on the exterior. the version of sago (tapioca) that i had eaten in the subcontinent is insipid and nursery like in texture. at babur it is transformed into a crust with a strong crunch. the papaya chutney is sharp with the heat of full peppercorns, which goes well with the sweet softness of the beetroot. there is a gram flour note in the cutlet. dots of chutneys with varying heat and coolness (mint, tamarind and mustard) add further dimension.
|beetroot cutlet, papaya chutney|
one of babur’s strength is its condiments. aside from the chefs compliments, a not so noteworthy mushroom fritter that would have benefited from a crisp exterior we were served four chutneys and a basket of papadums with our drinks to start the meal. i ended up eating most of these with the small spoons. the two most noteworthy ones were the lime and chilli packed with candy like lime peel. m was taken by the paper-thin carrots anointed with some oil and a sprinkling of warming spices like cumin. the tandoor baked pepper flecked papadum was excellent as it had a brittle crunch unlike the regular fried one.
|coriander daiquiri and old fashioned|
m’s main course was the pot-roasted rabbit. i was torn between the anjeer ke kofte (fig stuffed potato dumplings) and the kalaunji jumbo prawns. the choice of former was helped along by the front of house manager rupam as it was a new addition to the babur menu and included three different techniques of cooking (tandoori, frying and pickle). the wine flights matched to the menu looked excellent but m and i had already started on some rather unusual cocktails. i had the coriander daiquiri whose cooling elements had been warmed by the addition of spices. it helped restore much needed warmth to my body given the freezing cold outside. a custom old fashioned was mixed for m who generally abstains from cocktails as he finds them too sweet. his was a bitter affair of bourbon warmed with cloves and orange peel. m’s main course was peasant like in appearance. large coins of rabbit meat were held in a shallow bowl surrounded by a pale broth. this was a dish of mild and yet intense rabbit flavours. the mustard and ginger merely added warmth to the rabbit without overpowering the delicate rabbit meat. i would recommend serving the garlic roti on the side just to avoid it getting soggy with the broth. my main was composed of three different elements. the jumbo prawns had a citrus tang from the onion seeds and the gram flour provided a light crust. too often tandoori prawns are tough through overcooking. at babur they were perfect with a slightly firm flesh. the prawn pattice had a crust of semolina and a centre of mashed prawns. the stroke of prawn pickle had just the right tartness to contrast with the gentler flavours. on the side we had the mini breadbasket. the laccha paratha was disappointing with barely any ghee in it and so the dry layers crumbled rather than tearing easily. the aleppy okra was sweet with coconut whilst retaining texture. i find that we could have done without ordering the sides as the servings are substantial.
|pot-roasted mustard rabbit, garlic roti|
|kalaunji jumbo prawns, prawn pattice, |
prawn pickle puree
despite being very full m and i managed to muster dessert. m was leaning towards the warm oatmeal and whisky pudding, babur’s version of a cranachan. now as much as i love oats it’s not my most favourite dessert ingredient and i couldn’t really face something so stodgy after the wonderful flavours of our first two courses. luckily the front of house rupam talukdar came to our rescue by recommending the mango brulee and kulfi. as a general rule i never order crème brulee that has been tampered with, but given our experience of the food through the evening i figured it would be worth the chance. m had the stem ginger and honey kulfi. both desserts were spectacular. the mango brulee with its comma of mango sauce was a rich custard cut through with a tart mango. the hard layer of caramel was just the right thickness so that it shattered easily with a tap of the spoon. the kulfi was outstanding. it was just like the kulfi i’ve had in pakistan but with a slightly rough texture from the addition of the stem ginger flesh. a slightly sweet preserve of beetroot much like murabba (an indian preserve) adds brightness and another layer of flavour. babur’s is the best kulfi i’ve had outside pakistan.
|stem ginger kulfi|
m and i had a chance to have a brief chat with the chef praveen gupta. he tells us that babur is proud of sourcing the best ingredients, which is reflected in the taste of the food as well as the choices on the menu. the creativity of the kitchen is essentially built on indian classics so for instance m’s pot-roasted rabbit is popular in rajasthani cuisine. there are some constraints on the kitchen, which owe themselves to the diner’s taste buds. for instance the spice levels have had to be made milder. we also had a fairly long chat with rupam who is the front of house manager-cum-mixologist. rupam aspires to create unusual cocktails and is always experimenting with creating different flavour bases, infusions and syrups. similar attention is paid to the wine flights. the spice richness of indian food means that one has to find full bodied and plumy wines that are able to compliment the dishes.
us two siblings left babur very satisfied. i really wish that babur was my local indian but am comforted by the fact that with the over ground it isn’t really that far away. babur restaurant is too good an indian restaurant to just be a local so i’d recommend that you layer up and get yourself over to south east london for some seriously good food and wine to warm your cockles. there is a valentine special complete with the briny aphrodisiac oysters as a starter as well as a special offer for early birds and late diners that runs through february.