Thursday, February 3, 2011
I feel a certain connection with Babylon Restaurant in Footscray. I was behind the owner in a queue at the Council when he was putting in his last bits of paperwork to get the go-ahead to open. His enthusiasm was infectious and still is, and I'm so glad to see they are still going strong in their expansive Nicholson Street restaurant.
Babylon's menu roams from a simple kebab sandwich and Coke for $6.50 to a whole spit-roasted lamb with side dishes, home-delivered, for $220. It's popular with everyone, from office workers grabbing a quick bite to men lounging with endless cups of tea.
See the trident on the main sail of the ship? That says Allah, the Arabic word for God. The cursive nature of Arabic writing means that it can be plied into various shapes to literally make pictures out of words.
Many Middle Eastern homes and restaurants have these kind of images decorating the walls. They are various Quranic verses - I like the chilli one! People throughout the Muslim world have folk traditions relating to different verses, such as special ones to read during labour or to read in each room of a new house.
After our intense sheep's head experience last time we visited Babylon, we were keen to try something a little more pedestrian. The lovely owner offered us another very traditional Iraqi dish, samak masqouf. Normally this is by special order only here at Babylon but there was one already prepared for a large booking who came later that evening, so the owner let us have their fish while whipping them up another.
Back in Iraq this is a much-beloved dish served along the banks of the Tigris, butterflied and grilled, most traditionally over a charcoal or wood-fired BBQ. It is rubbed with a special marinade which must include tomato, capsicum and perhaps tamarind as it was sweet, spicy and tangy. The fish was very tender, separating in soft white threads, quite like blue grenadier.
The way it had been butterflied, however, meant that the bones were hard to avoid. Ah, bones, that which divides East and West, it would seem! Most Anglos I know just have a hard time with them, no matter what the animal. I know in Vietnamese culture much pleasure is derived from navigating around bones, hiding as they do delicate little slivers of meat which are often the sweetest. If you look at the goat carcasses in Footscray market for Vietnamese goat curry, they do indeed seem all skin and bone but it's that textural interplay (as well as the amazing flavours they lend to the curry's broth) that is the point.
Contrast this with my beautiful friend who lives near Cairo, whose Egyptian in-laws are absolutely horrified at the "waste" from the shreds of meat she leaves on her chicken drumsticks and wings. I have also tried to convince friends that Chinese chicken that is red on the bone is absolutely fine to eat. I don't mind bones that much but sometimes they become tedious after a while.
So we did enjoy our samak masgouf despite its boniness. When I asked what kind of fish it was, though, I discovered it was qattan, a freshwater fish somewhat like carp that had been shipped frozen all the way from Iraq! Holy food miles! Add to that the fact that it is apparently an at-risk fish and it was a decidedly eco-sinful meal. Nevertheless the exclamations of delight from the big Iraqi family dining nearby when the samak was ceremoniously presented made me remember my swoons of delight eating air-freighted Kingston biscuits in DC and London. The taste of home is something you cannot quantify and is as important for mental health as vitamins and minerals are for physical.
Anyway, I would have been happy to eat this fabulous rice on its own, each grain so separate and tender, mixed as it traditional with small ma'akarona or vermicelli fried in butter, spiced with cardamom and studded with sultanas and green peas.
A simple and delicious salad was another worthy accompaniment, dressed lightly with lemon and sumac, a dried, fruity red berry.
Babylon have great bread, quite like Turkish bread - soft as a pillow inside, full of bubbles and with a tender crust. The black seeds on top are nigella or love-in-the-mist seeds, also often seen on Turkish bread. They have a very subtle aroma and are used across the geographic crescent stretching from Indonesia to the Middle East to India. They are imbued with much mystical power in the Middle East and I have a lovingly-written homage to them composed by a friend in Arabic, which one day I will translate and share with you. For he, a Kurd from Syria, they are as much the taste of home as Babylon's samak masgouf, its sheep's head barche and lamb shank tashreb are to Melbourne's Iraqi community, and I am so grateful to have a portal here in Footscray allowing me to step even just momentarily into their world.
Address: 152 Nicholson Street, Footscray
Phone: 9689 3323
Hours: Open 7 days
Entry: Ground level.