South London’s Kurdish culinary gem deserves all the hype

The large, tasteful Kurdish plates on Nandine paint a much fuller history of Kurdistan than those in the West typically encounter. (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

The large, tasteful Kurdish plates on Nandine paint a much fuller history of Kurdistan than those in the West typically encounter. The talk of Kurdistan, the Middle East region that includes parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Iran, usually brings to mind a limited narrative stemming from headlines about ethno-political conflicts, violent struggles for independence and the generally grim epilogue. about colonization. Nandine does not exist in the abstract; its impressive origin story begins with its admirable matriarch / head chef, Pary Baban, who fled her northern Iraqi hometown of Qaladze in the late 1980s while still a teenager living under Saddam Hussein’s regime. On her journey from Qaladze to south London, Baban learned about the differences between different forms of Kurdish cooking before finally starting Nandine – a refined image of what she wrote 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 start making a name for herself in South London’s restaurant scene. While Lebanese, Turkish and vaguely described “Middle Eastern” restaurants have left their mark across London, places that can point their influence to a specific Kurdish tradition are still something of a strange rarity. Sure enough, fans of the more common aforementioned cuisines can expect some culinary similarities on their first visit to Nandine: olives, chickpeas, za’atar, kebabs, etc. The same crowd can also expect some welcome surprises: i.a. dill and celery.

The Kurdish negroni on the left and the Kurdish martini on the right (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

The Kurdish negroni on the left and the Kurdish martini on the right (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

Smiling faces and DIY woodwork welcome Nandine’s diners at the small restaurant’s doors. Millennial couples and groups of friends teased around us while the bartender used a barista-like, steaming machine to make cocktails in the background. The Kurdish martini and the Kurdish negroni both mentioned cardamom, thus catching our attention and securing our drink orders. Upon their arrival, we each sipped and made excited eye contact. The subtly sweet martini and negronia with a large cardamom-infused ice cube suggested us for the treat ahead.

Danout and Spiced Sausages (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

Danout and Spiced Sausages (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

As for food, it turned out to be hard work to narrow it down to just three parts, but we decided on danout & spiced sausage, the Kurdish dumplings and tara cauliflower. We made the right choice. Our first bite of each of these dishes was followed by a pleasant, “Oh ?!” or an “Okay, wait, give it a try!”

The Kurdish dumplings (James Chess and Nitya Dandu)

The Kurdish dumplings (James Chess and Nitya Dandu)

The soft, inviting, perfectly seasoned sausages arrived first and matched perfectly with the smooth pearl barley and chickpea danout beneath them. The Kurdish dumplings, which we ordered as a vegetable and two meats, had a hard exterior and a smoky hot interior that slightly suffocated the textual enjoyment, but not enough to keep us from swallowing them. The tara cauliflower heads were also perfectly seasoned (note the spice theme under development) and sat on a sour spinach, herbs and black bean sauce. The portions were so magnificent that we were still working away on the claufillower’s accompanying sauce when the entrees arrived. My friend went with the chicken lula while I ordered the charcoal grilled sea bass on our server’s recommendation.

Star Cauliflower (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

Star Cauliflower (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

The most notable aspects of our entrees were not the whole sea bass sitting in front of me, or the massive chicken kebab in front of my friend, but rather the aromatic, grilled vegetables with their black skins. Onions, tomatoes, green peppers and more sat along with servings of spicy flatbread and a cool yogurt with yellow pickled cauliflower in the middle. As we dug in, I started to get jealous of my friend’s chicken lula across the table. The long pieces of tender meat sat on top of her flat bread, borrowing their juice for what was already a juicy side to begin with. Luckily she could not eat it all so I could also enjoy the excellent and soft kebab. As one might expect with a whole fish, I sometimes struggled with some unpleasant bones in my mouth, but the lemon-like grilled cod was far from a bad suggestion from the server.

The charcoal-grilled sea bass (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

The charcoal-grilled sea bass (James Schaak and Nitya Dandu)

It speaks to the strength of the dishes that we decided to order a baklava dessert despite our impending descent into food coma. Everything had been so amazing so far, how could we not?

The Chicken Lula (James Chess and Nitya Dandu)

The Chicken Lula (James Chess and Nitya Dandu)

My Armenian-American grandmother and Dearborn, Michigan-raised mother taught me to have very high expectations for my baklava, and introduced 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, ingredient decisions that made me worried at first, and worried that I might have finally tested my luck. In hindsight, that was a junk concern. The almond splinters of the flaking pastries made me lick the fragrant syrup off my fingers when we finally finished our meal.

The Baklava (James Chess and Nitya Dandu)

The Baklava (James Chess and Nitya Dandu)

Nandine introduced me and my friend to Kurdish cuisine in an excellent way. It’s the kind of restaurant where we did not go out and talk about whether we would come back, we left and talked about what other dishes we would like 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 the rich culinary traditions of her culture to a sadly underinformed audience, then she can consider her mission as handful accomplished.

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