The large, flavourful Kurdish plates at Nandine paint a much fuller story of Kurdistan than those in the West typically encounter. Talk of Kurdistan, the Middle Eastern region that encompasses parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Iran, usually brings to mind a limited narrative derived from headlines of ethno-political conflict, violent struggles for independence and the generally bleak epilogue of colonisation. Nandine does not exist in the abstract; its impressive origin story begins with its admirable matriarch/head chef, Pary Baban, fleeing her northern Iraqi hometown of Qaladze in the late ‘80s while she was still a teenager living under Saddam Hussein’s regime. On her journey from Qaladze to south London, Baban learned of the various differences between different kinds of Kurdish cooking before eventually starting Nandine - a refined take of what she jotted down in a notebook over the years.
With a flagship location on Camberwell Church Street, a small café on nearby Vestry Road and an outpost in Peckham Levels, Nandine has worked hard in recent years to begin making a name for itself in the south London restaurant scene. While Lebanese, Turkish and vaguely-described “Middle Eastern” restaurants have left their stamp across London, spots that can pinpoint their influences to a specifically Kurdish tradition are still something of a curious rarity. Sure enough, fans of the more common aforementioned cuisines can expect some culinary similarities upon their first visit to Nandine: olives, chickpeas, za’atar, kebab, etc. That same crowd can also expect some welcome surprises: dill and celery among others.
Smiling faces and DIY woodwork greet Nandine’s dinner guests at the small restaurant’s doors. Millennial couples and friend groups bantered around us while the bartender used some barista-looking, steaming machine to make cocktails in the background. The Kurdish martini and Kurdish negroni both mentioned cardamon, thus catching our attention and securing our drink orders. Upon their arrivals, we each sipped and made excited eye contact. The subtly sweet martini and the negroni with a large cardamom-infused ice cube clued us into the treat ahead.
As for food, narrowing it down to only three shareables proved to be tough work but we decided upon the danout & spiced sausage, the Kurdish dumplings and the tara cauliflower. We chose right. Our first bite of each of these dishes was followed by a pleasant, “Oh?!” or a “Okay, wait, you need to try that!”
The soft, inviting, perfectly-spiced sausages arrived first and went perfectly with the smooth pearl barley and chickpea danout below them. The Kurdish dumplings, which we ordered as one veggie and two meat, had a hard exterior and a piping hot interior that somewhat stifled the textual enjoyment but not enough to keep us from gobbling them up. The tara cauliflower heads were also perfectly-spiced (notice the developing spice theme) and sat upon a tangy spinach, herb and black bean sauce. The portions were so grand that we were still working away at the claufilower’s accompanying sauce when the entrées arrived. My friend went with the chicken lula whereas I ordered the charcoal-grilled sea bass per our server’s recommendation.
The most noticeable aspects of our entrées were not the entire sea bass that sat in front of me or the massive chicken kebab in front of my friend but rather the aromatic, grilled vegetables with their blackened skins. Onions, tomatoes, green peppers and more sat alongside servings of seasoned flatbread and a cool yoghurt with yellow pickled cauliflower in the middle. As we dug in, I began to grow jealous of my friend’s chicken lula across the table. The long pieces of tender meat sat on top of her flat bread, lending their juices to what was already a saporous side to begin with. Thankfully she could not eat the whole thing so I too could gorge myself on the excellent and soft kebab. As one should expect with a whole fish, I battled some unpleasant bones in my mouth at times but the lemony grilled cod was far from a bad suggestion by the server.
It speaks to the strength of the dishes that we decided to order a baklava dessert despite our impending descent into a food coma. Everything had been so terrific thus far, how could we not?
My Armenian-American grandmother and Dearborn, Michigan-raised mother taught me to have very high expectations for my baklava, introducing me to the Detroit area’s famous Middle Eastern food scene at a young age. Nandine’s batch that night lacked pistachio and included coconut, ingredients decisions that made me apprehensive at first, worrying me that I may have finally tested my luck. In hindsight, that was a frivolous concern. The flaky pastries’ almond slivers had me licking the fragrant syrup off my fingers by the time we finally finished our meal.
Nandine introduced me and my friend to Kurdish cuisine in sterling fashion. It’s the kind of restaurant where we didn’t leave talking about whether we’d come back, we left talking about what other dishes we’d want to re-order upon our inevitable return. Not only does Nadine serve delicious food, it serves a unique and much-needed perspective to London. If Baban’s mission is to introduce her culture’s rich culinary traditions to a woefully under-informed audience, then she can consider her mission handedly accomplished.