Friday, September 5, 2008

International Steez – Part 4: Hakuna Matata

Much like the continent itself, the cuisines of Africa are mysterious, alluring, and exotic. Apart from the occasional Moroccan meal, I have never cooked African food at home, and have only eaten Ethiopian/Eritrean and Moroccan food in restaurants. How can it be that I am neglecting to eat the food of an entire gigundous continent? Something’s gotta give, and that’s why the girls and I decided to head to the ‘burbs to eat at Babanusa, the only Sudanese restaurant in Australia.
Before heading to Babanusa I did some research on the cuisine of Sudan, partly because I love learning about cultures through their food, and partly because I’m a big dork. I learned that Sudanese cuisine has evolved and developed over generations through word of mouth without the aid of cookbooks or written recipes, and since I haven’t been to Sudan, that partly explains why I’ve never come across any of its recipes. Indeed, in the cookbooks on African food I found in the public library, Sudanese cuisine is little mentioned. I’ve eaten Ethiopian food in Boston and also here in Adelaide and because Sudan and Ethiopia share a border in northeast Africa, I thought Babanusa and its Sudanese cuisine would somewhat resemble my experiences at these Ethiopian restaurants.

I was able to gather through my research that the Sudanese are a notoriously hospitable people whose cuisine draws from its diverse geography of sandy deserts and tropical forests. A multitude of external influences have colored Sudan’s history and the cuisine reflects British, French, and Italian influences as well as borrowing elements from Egyptian, Ethiopian and Turkish cuisines. Much like the Ethiopian cuisine with which I am familiar, the Sudanese eat their meals from a communal tray with no utensils other than the occasional spoon, scooping the many dishes on offer with the aid of flatbreads and fingers. Ingredients such as onions, garlic, eggplant, pumpkins, chickpeas, and tamarind were familiar and appealed to me, but I must admit I was a bit reluctant when I saw sheep lungs and cattle hooves mentioned as popular appetizers in Sudan, where they are eaten raw. I’m open-minded, but that just might make me run in the opposite direction. Okra is indigenous to the African continent and is used both fresh and dried to thicken soups and sauces. Black-eyed peas, one of my ultimate favorite foods, are popular and native to the area as well. Along with dates and figs and an alcoholic drink prepared from the flowers of a hibiscus tree, I was excited to see how many of these ancient and alluring ingredients I could try at Babanusa.

Well, you can imagine my delight when all of the goodies were on the menu and none of the baddies, ie sheep lungs, were to be found!

We started with a selection of four dips in a variety of colors, flavors, and spices, with clear and distinct flavors coming from the yogurt and cucumber, pureed pumpkin and peanuts (the table favorite), eggplant with garlic and lemon, and a chickpea dip dominated by cumin. The ensemble of dips resembled a selection you would get at a Lebanese or Middle Eastern restaurant, but with more vivid and bold spices.

The dips were accompanied by kisra, a traditional thin bread that’s the main staple of Sudanese cuisine and has a fermented, sour flavor and chewy, elastic texture. If you’ve eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant, you can compare kisra to injera bread, only thinner. It’s fun to play with. And to eat.

While we would have happily sopped up the dips and forthcoming mains with the kisra in the traditional Sudanese manner, forks and knives were provided for those who were uneasy about communal dining. This carried over to the huge variety of mains we ordered, which were not served simultaneously on a traditional tray but brought out in stages in separate bowls for passing and spooning onto individual diner’s plates.

There are many unfamiliar, exotic-sounding drinks on offer, such as hibiscus and tamarind cordials and an African beer called Windhoek. When questioned for advice, owner Eltahir Malik demonstrated Sudanese hospitality by offering a complimentary sample of sharpat to enjoy with our dips. We learned that Eltahir and chef Eddie Ahmed make a variety of cordials (sweet liqueurs) in-house, including sharpat which is made of fermented dates and sprouts and had a faint lemony flavor. The wine was good too. Score.

Mains provided astonishing value for quality and quantity, ranging from $10.50 to $20, and were perfectly and intricately seasoned. The meat dishes yielded to our forks with incredible ease. The goat (maeez) was standout and the best preparation I have ever tried of this meat, bathed in a sauce of malokhia and perfect quantities of clove and cinnamon. Malokhia is a green leaf native to Africa, similar in texture and flavor to spinach yet lending body to the sauce in much the same way the Sudanese use okra.

Jagadig, a spicy beef stew served with spinach and black-eyed peas, was as much fun to eat as its name is to pronounce. Jagadigjagadigjagadigjagadig – try saying that five times fast! Sounds like a train taking you to funky town. Meltingly tender and spicy, while not being overly so, the dish was accented by cumin and garlic.

A vegetarian would be well catered for here with many interesting (and filling) combinations and flavors using lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, nuts and eggplant as foundations. We chose sudi, grilled eggplant stacked with roasted red peppers, peanut sauce, and arugula served on a bed of couscous. The eggplant and red bell peppers were nicely charred, lending a smoky flavor to the dish that nicely complemented the richness of the peanut sauce. The flavors were complex and the dish offered the best presentation of the meal and was surprisingly Meagan’s, the extreme carnivore of the group, favorite dish.

Overall, presentations were simple, mains were filling without being greasy, meats were well-seasoned and well-cooked, and the many distinct flavors kept us interested and engaged. The meal was rounded out with couscous, brown rice, and a thick, golden corn porridge called assida that resembled thick polenta in appearance and taste.

Because we lingered for over two hours on our entrees and mains, the kitchen was closed by dessert time. We would have liked to have tried zalabia, honey balls dusted with roasted spices and served with ice cream, or fenugreek dumplings served with a date sauce. The spiced or fruit tea or strong spiced coffee, for which the Sudanese are famous, were also appealing. After two bottles of wine for four people and more food than we could eat, the tab came to a mere $35 per head. And that made us very happy!

Owner Eltahir Malik motivated us to join him on the African xylophone and drums and to dance to the rhythms he helped us create. A charismatic man who is clearly proud and passionate about his country and cuisine, Malik has done a good job of making Sudanese food accessible and interesting to Australians. The flavors were different without being intimidating. He has fashioned a relaxed, approachable atmosphere in the spirit of his homeland and is eager to share enchanting stories of Sudan’s history, cuisine, customs, music and even religion to diners who are in no rush to break Babanusa’s enticing spell. He chatted us up for a good 45 minutes after dinner, and after all that wine and sharpat, it wasn’t difficult to convince us to kick up our heels to his African beats. I tried my hand at the drums and was so amazing I’m expecting a call this week from Eltahir asking me to be a special guest drummer on busy Saturday nights. Recording contract forthcoming.

We will certainly be back, thanks for sharing your cuisine with us, Eltahir!

Babanusa Sudanese Restaurant

86 Prospect Road, Prospect. Ph: (08) 8342 1222.

Babanusa on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

i hope i was there with you
well written
will br there one day to enjoy the food

Anonymous said...

me too
hope to be there one day to relax with kisra the delicious sudanese dishes

Anonymous said...

I hope i was there with you
well written
will be there one day to enjoy the food

Anonymous said...

Great post, Cari. I really enjoyed the background on Sudanese food. Sounds like it was a delicious night!

Anonymous said...

Your turning into a real restaurant reviewer/critic. Do you take notes during the meal or is all this from memory?