I am a food columnist for Alberta at Noon and at first glance it might seem terrifically self-promoting to talk about my own book for my monthly column but this story isn’t really about me at all. It’s about my mentor, Noorbanu Nimji. She is a great Alberta immigrant, cookbook author and cross-cultural success story.
Noorbanu Nimji (photo above by Jeremy Fokkens Photography) was born in Nairobi, Kenya and much like the wave of Syrian refugees who are arriving in Canada now, Noorbanu arrived here in 1974 when, then president of Uganda, Idi Amin, was expelling anyone “non-African” from the East African countries of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Noorbanu’s ancestors were from Gujarat in North India but she was African by birth. It didn’t matter, the Nimji family, like so many others, were forced to leave everything they owned and walk away from their homeland.
After a brief spell in England Noorbanu arrived in Calgary on a bone-chilling November day and it has been her home for over 40 years now. From knowing Noorbanu, and from my many years as a nurse, I can attest to the contributions immigrants make to a country.
Noorbanu has spent her time in Canada teaching, cooking and volunteering to make a difference. Her four children are great business people and her six grandchildren contribute to the arts, law, health care, business and education.
Noorbanu’s contribution to this world is unique. Through her abilities as a cook she’s been able to capture the unique recipes that are the food of her native East African Ismaili Muslim cultural community. This group’s particular Indian ancestry and use of East African produce means a very unique culinary heritage. Until Noorbanu recorded the recipes involved, they were only passed by oral tradition. The diaspora from East Africa meant many of these tasty recipes would’ve been lost without this record. Noorbanu’s work is like a snapshot that captured their essence and presence in time. Her books have sold over 250,000 copies since the first one was published in 1986.
It wasn’t easy for Noorbanu to publish her cookbooks. Publishing houses weren’t interested in global cuisines and novel tastes. Even Calgary’s famous Best of Bridge and Alberta’s Company’s Coming brands were turned down at publishing houses and finance institutions when they started up. The women behind those brands had to find their own paths to publication. Women were challenged as entrepreneurs in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s not very long ago – really.
As an immigrant woman with limited means, Noorbanu thought publishing a cookbook a daunting proposition but she turned to her faith and prayed for help. One day, she visited a Lebanese friend and found that she’d self-published her restaurant’s recipes through a Calgary printer. Noorbanu approached the same printer. Though the costs were modest by today’s standards they were more than she could afford at the time. The printer saw the originality of the recipes though and came to the Nimji home to talk with the family. After a dinner of Noorbanu’s samosas (photo above by me and my iPhone) and a family favourite called Kuku Paka, she decided Noorbanu’s food was too good not to be shared with the world. She micro-financed the book with an advance in the form of Noorbanu paying her for the printing as the books sold from the first print run.
Word of mouth and truly happy results from efforts at cooking her recipes earned impressive book sales. She never got press mentions or media.
I met Noorbanu when I took a cooking class from her in 1996 at Calgary’s The Cookbook Co. Cooks (photo of Noorbanu and me by Jeremy Fokkens Photography). I had always loved Indian food but struggled to make any dish turn out well. The few dishes I learned in the class with Noorbanu turned out well but others did not because I was missing ingredients and I still didn’t know where to find all the spices they called for.
I retired as a nurse shortly after starting a family and a few years later, in 2006, I launched Calgary Food Tours Inc. and started a simultaneous career as a freelance writer. I landed stories on a CBC Radio One show called Wild Rose Country that year and when Great Britain announced “curry” as their national dish, I did a 10 minute radio segment on Noorbanu and her ability with spice masalas (spice blending).
She was just about to release her third book at that time and work on that new book had her wanting to update and revise the first two. She was looking for a recipe tester and writer.
For a lot of my life, I’d wanted to do this thing – to make wonderful Indian food. I asked if she would consider me for the job and she hired me on the spot. We spent a winter in her kitchen testing about 100 of her recipes. Then, the third book came out and the first two continued to sell and a fourth book seemed less urgent.
While work on our book project stalled, I had another idea. I had benefitted so much from Noorbanu’s mentorship, I asked if she would teach public classes again, only with me and to a broader audience. Helping people with another book felt a long way off, but I thought, we could be helping people immediately by offering classes.
For several years, we took people to Calgary’s “little India” to enjoy Indian buffets and to shop for spices, produce and meat masalas. We made everyone their own spice boxes. We wrapped and fried samosas and served them up with fresh chutneys. We had fun and people were empowered to go to a lesser known part of town that they might never have explored on their own. Most importantly they had the knowledge and tools to successfully prepare Indian food at home. This was gratifying work.
Noorbanu and I grew closer (photo above by Julie Van Rosendaal) and would often get together just for a little grocery shopping and lunch. I would come over and sit and fold samosas with her before big community gatherings. If I wanted to learn a dish, we’d make it together in her kitchen. She taught me pacing and to adjust seasoning.
In 2011, our quiet work was noticed by a tour company based out of Vancouver and I was asked to lead cuisine and culture trips to India. I’ve led four now. Through my partnerships with Praveen, Prem and Rinku Syal and their companies Indus Travels and HiTours in Vancouver and New Delhi, I feel confident and at home in India now. I owe that feeling completely to my Syal family and their staff as I’m very aware that I could never be this successful without their constant love and thoroughly professional support.
Travelling India, trekking jungles where spices grow, meeting chefs and cooking with friends in kitchens North and South has given much more depth to my knowledge of this ancient cuisine. It also gave Noorbanu and I the gift of a wonderful photographer to bring beauty and light to our cookbook.
Pauli-Ann Carriere (selfie photo by Pauli-Ann Carriere) is a friend that I’ve known about a dozen years. She lives in Vancouver but we met on holidays in Naramata, British Columbia. Being active with our families, cooking and enjoying great wine and food together are strong ties to bond a friendship. Pauli-Ann and I are weaving an intricate tapestry with these common threads. She has been to India three times with me and I was delighted when she expressed interest in photographing Noorbanu’s food for our project. I hope to work with Pauli-Ann on a much broader project very soon. She is solace, serenity, strength and pure sunshine for me.
With Pauli-Ann on board, we began work in earnest on Noorbanu’s fourth book, A Spicy Touch – Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen after all her previous copies of books were destroyed in The Great Alberta Flood of 2013. From January of 2015 until the final print edits were completed in October, we worked non-stop on the manuscript, photography, food styling, layout design, editing, print production, distribution and marketing processes.
We are blessed to have not only each other and Pauli-Ann, but the food styling talents of Julie Van Rosendaal, the enthusiasm of Nina Palmer and Todd Macfie of Platform Design, the devoted editing skills of Tilly Sanchez, the professional abilities of Friesen’s printing in Altona, Manitoba and the connections of our distributor Sandhill Book Marketing as well as the support of many friends, fellow writers and our loving families.
The book hit the shelves of Indigo and many beloved independent book retailers across Canada in late November and I’m happy to tell you it is selling very well. It is 320 pages, hard covered, full colour and contains 225 recipes. We hope it feels like you’ve been invited into Noorbanu’s home and that she is there with you as you cook.
Noorbanu is an octogenarian now. She has overcome the adversity of a refugee’s life in a foreign land and her family has thrived in Canada. This book we wrote together is a tribute to her and the difference she’s made by becoming a teacher. She’s one of my life’s greatest mentors and I’m blessed to know her. It is only through her great generosity that I am her co-author. It is an honour. Knowing Noorbanu and working with her helps me savour it all. It is our greatest wish that our book might help you do the same.