On March 21, Kurds will be celebrating their most important festival, Newroz, the spring equinox and the first day of their calendar. According to legend, the Kurds lived for 2500 years under a tyrant with snakes coming out of his shoulders; the monster was so evil spring ceased to come.
Today the festival is a rallying point for a unified state. Some Turkish commentators expect riots this year. But there is also dressing up, singing, dancing, lighting bonfires and young men leaping over the flames; picnics (“seyran”) are popular too.
The Kurds are not a nation familiar to most South Africans, although there is the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group based in Cape Town. They are an Islamic Indo-Iranian people unhappily spread across several countries – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, but mostly in Turkey where there are over 11 million Kurds.
With the fall of Saddam Hussein (who gassed and butchered tens of thousands of villagers), the Kurds have established the relatively autonomous regional authority of Kurdistan in Iraq. In this particular region it is seen as a success story – reasonably governed, growing, and mostly peaceful. However in recent years there has been mounting political dissent and allegations of its brutal suppression. Regular skirmishes and fighting continues between the Kurdish PKK and Turkish forces.
It’s not surprising then to find some nationalist literature (and interestingly a recruiting pamphlet from the Kurdish Outreach Ministries, an evangelical Christian organisation) included with the menu at the first and oldest Kurdish restaurant in South Africa.
Mesopotamia opened in 1996 and as a Capetonian I dutifully went. (We Cape Town folk used to loyally go to every new restaurant in the days when we could still keep up with the number of places.)
The restaurant is in an old building on Long Street on the second floor up a vintage wooden staircase.
Sitting on the floor was still a novelty (as was eating with your hands at Biesmiellah in the Bo-Kaap). Some people find it awkward, but once you’ve kicked off your shoes and settled in it’s perfectly comfortable. Reclining on the handmade kelim cushions at traditional, round tables with large copper tray insets surrounded by carpet hung walls creates a convivial atmosphere.
The food takes about an hour to appear. The reason given is that everything is made from scratch in a wood-fired tandoori oven.
Much of Kurdish cuisine is familiar to people who have travelled or eaten in Turkish restaurants or the Levant. The cuisine has regional variety, with Arabic, Persian (the use of saffron), Armenian and even Indian influences; think dolmas (stuffed vine leaves), köfte (şiş kebab), hummus, yoghurt aubergines and cucumbers. Kurds were mostly nomads until the beginning of the last century.
The food is halal though wine is served.
Start with the mezzes and nan bread. You might try lahana (cabbage stuffed with mussels, spicy rice, nuts, currants and cinnamon), lor (crumbled goats milk cheese with butter, parsley and cucumber), and kizartma (fried brinjal, green pepper, baby marrow and garlic yoghurt). I found most of the mezzes to be big on garlic. The portions are reasonable, and pretty soon one’s plate is overflowing.
For mains, lamb features strongly in various traditional stews, wrapped in nan bread or as kebab: iskender (with garlic yoghurt and tomato sauce), haran (with spinach and spiced with chili, served in a clay pot), and yagni (lamb chops, spiced and cooked with pickled onions).
Together with the mezzes there is plenty here for vegetarians: guvech (oven baked vegetables in clay pots with cheese) and badiljane tijikiri (aubergines stuffed with vegetables, served with garlic yoghurt and salad).
Sometime into your meal you will be blasted with music and belly-dancing. The cover charge is R10 and obligatory. Half-naked, pale women who have convinced themselves they are practicing a great and ancient art, as opposed to George Bernard Shaw’s observation of it being “a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire”, will entertain one. It’s somewhat interactive and diners are invited to participate at the end of the floor show; few decline. Fortunately, the last time I went the dancer was Beverly. She really lifts the standard.
For dessert there is a choice of baklava (phyllo pastry with pistachio, walnuts); kaysi dolma (apricots stuffed with cream and almonds) and sutlatch (an oven baked rice pudding).
After dinner, those inclined can smoke hookah pipes. The tobacco is flavoured with molasses or dried fruit pulp.
Mesopotamia is an ideal venue for a celebration or boisterous party strung out over the course of an evening; few things to break and not far to fall.
The owner also has the eponymous Baran’s restaurant just off Greenmarket Square. As we in the southern hemisphere move into fine autumnal days, sitting out at one of its sidewalk tables is very pleasant. There is also balcony seating upstairs with great views of the city centre.
I can recommend the mezze platter selection. The menu at Baran’s has many Kurdish dishes but also caters to trade off the street with the usual local favourites, such as Greek and Caprese salads, Cape Malay seafood curry, fish and chips, fillet (including ostrich and springbok), and ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce.
Mesopotamia, corner Long & Church Streets, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 4664.
Barans, 36 Burg Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 426 4466.
This article first appeared on 19 March 2012 in the Mail & Guardian.