ST. PAUL, MINN. — Rodwan Makshabandi is desperately searching for a black, cracked, dried-out lemon imported from Oman.
"How can I make Kurdish lemonade?" he asks helplessly. "People come to this restaurant to have Kurdish lemonade, but I can never get enough Omani lemons to serve them." He smiles, shrugs, and capitulates to the inevitable.
"Well, if I cannot give them real Kurdish lemonade today, we will not serve lemonade. That is final." Then he returns to his grill, culinary integrity saved.
St. Paul hardly has a reputation for ethnic cuisine, and the Kurdish population of 25 families doesn't sound promising. But the Kurds themselves, spread over 79,000 square miles of eastern Turkey, Armenia, and Iraq, do have their own cuisine.
"Our cooking is complicated, as we are," Mr. Makshabandi says. "But we are also open to new ideas here in America. We have no prejudices, and our food is also open, easy to eat, and we changed with the times."
The major change is that beef substitutes for the ever-present Kurdish lamb.
"We tried American lamb," says Makshabandi, "but it is too strong. Kurdish lamb is sweeter. We cannot import it, so we choose American beef. When it is extra-lean, it is just as good."
Spices and herbs are from importers on the West and East coasts. They include attra, a mountain herb with the aroma of thyme, and "Syrian spice mix," a combination of different sweet-smelling spices. Also used are black and red peppers and chicory, a staple of Kurdish cuisine.
"The most characteristic ingredient which differs us from our neighbors," he explains, "is the use of cracked rice, which is formed into special dumplings. Very much like Chinese dumplings, but with more ingredients. But here, because it is Minnesota, we use cracked wheat, with the same results."
To make Kubay Sawar, an oblong dumpling, the wheat is first soaked, then fried. After that, lean ground beef, walnuts, the Syrian mix, and parsley, along with peppers and cardamom, are mixed together, then boiled and served.
The result is a texture almost of phyllo pastry, smooth and thin.
Of special pride is Sheikh Babani. Named after the characteristic striped trousers of one of the ancient founders of the Babani tribe, it uses eggplant that has been cored and peeled in decorative stripes.
Around the stripes are strips of beef, mixed with parsley and other spices.
The founder-owner of this most unlikely restaurant is Tanya Fuad, an Iraqi Kurd who has lived in Minnesota since 1974 and whose accent is pure Midwestern. She studied environmental science, worked in Liberia, and while doing work for a nongovernmental organization in a Kurdish refugee camp, discovered chef Makshabandi, whom she brought to America.
"Rodwan could take the simplest ingredients, like cucumbers and onions and lemons, and make the most wonderful Kurdish salads."
The result is a menu that is somewhat Turkish in style, but with dishes found only in Kurdish homes.
Ms. Fuad is also an accomplished photographer, and her restaurant is a virtual Kurdish photographic museum, displaying evocative pictures from the villages. The portraits of women in their homes are shadowy, dark, sometimes startling in their use of shafts of light, while the pictures of village life evoke paintings by Bruegel. Most startling of all, though, are pictures from Dyabakir, the ancient "capital" of Turkish Kurdistan, with its thick Roman walls going back to 297 AD caught with somber magnificence.
Members of Fuad's tribe, the Babani, are praised on the menu for "their fierce fighting habits and their sexual prowess." Babani women are "kind, forgiving, and excellent cooks."
This is hardly politically correct, but Ms. Fuad has no intention of changing it.
"I was sick and tired," says Ms. Fuad, "of people saying, 'Oh, you poor Kurds, I feel so sorry for you.' So I decided that, whether people liked it or not, I would show we were a real people with real traditions. Oh, and real home-cooked food as well."
*Babani's Kurdish Restaurant is located at 544 Saint Peter Street, St. Paul, Minn. Telephone: (651) 602-9964.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society