Rajendra Wadhawan arrived in Toronto in 1971 as a young teenager, alone and without family, to finish a degree in chemical engineering at U of T. After graduation, Raj worked in zinc and copper mines in Timmons, moving back to Toronto in 1983.
In the beginning
It was at this time he opened Guru on Baldwin, followed by the first Babur (near the AGO) in 1987. According to Raj, he was the first to bring Butter Chicken to Canada in 1983, as well as Chicken Tikka Masala.
It seems a far leap from chemical engineering to running a restaurant, but Raj seemed destined for it. His sister owned a Punjabi restaurant, so he gathered some ideas of how she was doing the job when coming to Toronto, and he had a deep love for Indian cuisine, thanks to his mother. "She was a fantastic cook," he says, and as it turns out, many of the recipes used at Babur today are hers.
In April 1995, Babur opened here on Queen West and Guru closed. Raj says that at that time, "Queen Street was very rundown. There were just a handful of notable places - City TV, Queen Mother Café, Le Select, Peter Pan and The Stem diner. And we were doing fancy tablecloths."
Indian restaurants were a rarity at the time. "There was me, Bombay Palace and Indian Rice Factory," Raj says. Then there was the fact that, "Indian people that used to live in the Toronto were moving to Brampton, Markham, and Scarborough. Those people started opening in the suburbs."
"Then Queen Street changed," he continues. "The demographic became young yuppies. Trendy people started coming to Queen. Now there was Little India, India House, Indian Palace, and Everest. In only half a block, from St. Patrick to John Street, six Indian restaurants opened."
In 2010, Babur under went a renovation. "I brought in Sara Parisotto and Hamid Samad, the designers and owners of Commute Home. It was very high-end, and time for a change." The result is a modern restaurant with warm, rustic touches that doesn't look anything like any Indian restaurant you've ever been.
The menu, too is modern. Clean food that's not drowing in heavy sauces is the speciality here. High end ingredients such as foie gras, quail and red snapper; a fusion dessert selection; and 22 single malt whiskies from different areas also set it apart. "I'm a foodie," Raj says. "I tried restaurants in India and whenever I go traveling. The writer who influenced me the most is Pat Chapman in the UK." The first cookbook he wrote? The aptly titled, "The Indian Restaurant Cookbook."
The dishes at Babur are mostly regional from northern India. Raj is serving "the kind of food that was served in royal households in the Mughal dynasty. I tested authentic recipes which I am presenting in my restaurant." The menu changes by improving the recipes, standardizing those recipes, and some innovations. My menu as a result of all of these three."
Testing, testing, one, two, three
Dishes range from Parsi, Goan, Tamil and Rajistan, but perhaps what is most fascinating is that Raj's chemical engineering background plays a big part in the food.
"I studied spices under certain conditions. Following a recipe, I wondered why cumin seed?There is a Certain taste associated with cumin, so I decided to study how it behaved when boiled, fried, and roasted. I decided the best taste came from roasting. A light roasting for rice, medium for curries, and dark for raita." Then he tackled cauliflower for making Aloo Gobi.
"How to prepare gobi to get best taste? I boiled, roasted, sautéed, and deep-fried it. For the best taste – sautéing," Raj says. For potatoes, he deep fries them. No dish can match french fries," he says, "It's the best dish on the planet. People start in childhood and eat them until they die." But sweet potatoes don't perform the same with frying. There's no taste, Raj says He tried boiling them but osmosis occurs and all the ingredients seep into the water. The ideal result? Baking them in the tandoor ovens.
Raj was adamant that the meat and seafood also be tested. So chicken gets stir-fried, meats are roasted and seafood is grilled. There are three tandoor ovens - one charcoal, one gas and one a hybrid. There are also three dedicated cooks (Raj is the chef, not the cook) - one does just curries, one mans the tandoori oven and one cooks takes care of the appetizers.
Change is a good thing
One thing Raj doesn't shy from are dietary restrictions. In fact, he welcomes it.
"Vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian options... wecustomize it all. Everything is fresh from the pan to the water to the spoon - the procedure here is don't mix anything. We get lots of patients (from nearby hospitals) who require meals without salt or without oil. We can absolutely accommodate them. Your service comes when someone makes a special request. It's your time to show your skills of service.It's an opportunity/challenge - how to best please your guest?"
Raj embraces change and that is part of what has made Babur an institution for almost thirty years. That and the fresh, modern Indian fare fit for a King/Queen.