Did you ever have a teacher that made you want to break out singing that wonderful hit song from Lulu in 1967 – To Sir with Love? Well, as I pay tribute to Noorbanu Nimji, my beloved Indian cooking teacher, mentor, friend and second mother, that song is rolling through my head. Only, in my brain, it’s To Noor with Love. Here’s how my version would go:
Those cooking days of telling tales and happy trails are all gone
But in my mind I know they will still live on and on
But how do you thank someone who used all she knew to give you a chance to bloom?
It isn’t easy, but I’ll try
If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters
That would soar a thousand feet high ‘To Noor, With Love’
The time did come for closing our cookbooks I’m thankful we had one last time together before your very end
And as I left, I knew that you were leaving too – this time goodbye was for good my dear friend
You were the chef who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That was a lot to learn, and what can I give you in return?
If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start
But I would rather you let me give my heart ‘To Noor, With Love’
Okay. So, I’m no Lulu. But you get the drift. A teacher like Noorbanu Nimji is a rare thing in life. When I think of what I learned from her, three things come to mind – devotion, joy and excellence.
Noorbanu was completely devoted to her faith, family and friends. A Shia Ismaili Muslim, she was very close in age to the religion’s spiritual leader, The Aga Khan. She was grateful for his guidance and devotion to his people almost all the days of her life. She had the joy of meeting him a few times. And, she supported his work to lift people out of poverty, to provide health care and education in some of the world’s most desperate countries and to create beauty through gracious urban planning and art wherever possible.
Her faith was not an abstract thing. Noorbanu rose everyday at about 3:45 a.m. and was at mosque for meditation and prayers by 4:30 a.m. She only had a short rest in the morning before carrying on with her day. She returned to mosque each evening to meditate and pray again. She told me that she had experienced a oneness with Allah in her lifetime and as she aged, she had no fear of dying. Such was her devotion to and solace in her faith.
The mother of four children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Noorbanu was devoted to their happiness and to that of her late husband. She cooked all their favourite foods and thought nothing of making a thousand (or two!) samosas for special celebrations and parties. Her samosas were everyone’s favourite.
Noorbanu was also a devoted friend to many. Much beloved for her cooking skills and offerings, it was her smile that people have talked about most since she died. She had enough love to mother the world. I believe that is what people felt when she smiled at them. She was joyful and she shared her joy freely.
I love these photos above. You can see the joy Noorbanu had when she cooked and taught cooking. Because she was such a great cook, when she moved to Calgary from East Africa in 1974, she was asked by the youth of her community to teach the favourite dishes of her people.
Noorbanu’s people were originally from Gujarat in northwestern India. Her parents emigrated to East Africa in the 1920’s and she was born in Nairobi, Kenya on August 29, 1934. Her food was the best of Indian Moghali with East African influences.
After 10 years of teaching cooking in her new home in Canada, Noorbanu had a huge stack of typewritten recipes and a friend suggested she publish them in a cookbook. Noorbanu approached a printer but when she found out the cost, she realized her family could not afford it. Still, she invited the printer home to dinner and once the printer tasted Noorbanu’s food, she personally funded the first printing of A Spicy Touch and Noorbanu repaid her out of the profits.
Noorbanu’s first three cookbooks in the A Spicy Touch series went on to sell over a quarter million copies. Her joy in cooking and teaching brought joy to many. Every single time we were out shopping for Indian staples we’d run into someone who would thank Noorbanu for saving their marriage with her recipes.
People would often make a fuss when they got to meet Noorbanu. After they’d leave she’d explain it to me with a shrug of her shoulders and a chuckle. She’d say, “I’m a little bit famous.” Then, her chuckle would roll into a real belly laught because fame was so unimportant to her. Helping people was what mattered to Noorbanu. Anything else, she would simply shrug off and carry on. Probably the most important thing that set the cooking of Noorbanu Nimji apart was her commitment to excellence.
Noorbanu learned to cook when she got married and moved into her in-laws home. She was a quick study and often only needed to be shown a dish once before she would make it and improve on it. Her father-in-law praised her cooking and with this positive feedback, she wanted to please her family even more.
She enjoyed her life in Nairobi greatly and often told me, “it was God’s country – an absolute paradise.” The family had mangoes, avocados and wonderful produce in their garden. With her sisters-in-law, she took turns shopping, making snacks, dal, breads, vegetables, curries, masalas and sweets until she had perfected all the family’s recipes.
Noorbanu had an incredible palate. She may have been what’s known as a super-taster. She could taste something once and recreate it. All of these things laid the foundation for her excellence as a recipe writer. Noorbanu was a slave to getting a recipe right!
In the photo above, Noorbanu is holding her hand-written notes for the recipe called Thepla (a crispy cookie). She had two Thepla recipes in her volumes but when fans sent her their recipes, she faithfully tried them all before deciding that her own recipes still turned out the best.
Though she was 80 years old when A Spicy Touch – Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen was published, she had a sharp mind and poured over the manuscript numerous times searching for typos and changing wording until she was happy with it.
When we cooked together, Noorbanu’s kitchen was always spotless. We’d prep everything and have it in place. This is what the French call mise en place – or everything in place. It was the way Noorbanu made everything and it allowed everything to flow with rhythm and grace in her kitchen.
It gave me great joy to see Noorbanu’s work recognized by the Independent Book Publishers and by Taste Canada when we published her fourth and final book together. She was also named one of Western Living magazine’s Top Foodies in 2016. She may have been the only octogenarian receive that honour.
Writing cookbooks is not for wimps! In the photos above, you see Noorbanu at work behind the scenes with our food styling consultant Julie Van Rosendaal and our dear friend and photographer Pauli-Ann Carriere. Julie helped us establish a fresh vibrant look for Noorbanu’s Indian food. Pauli-Ann worked tirelessly to capture the images and Noorbanu and I cooked our hearts out.
We had to reshoot the samosa-folding sequence of photos a few times. Noorbanu’s commitment to excellence gave her patience and stamina. I still can’t believe she was 80 years old.
One week in April of 2015, we cooked and photographed over 60 dishes in her kitchen. Pauli-Ann and I would arrive there at eight o’clock in the morning, leave at 6 p.m. and go home a cook a few more dishes to photograph before dark. The bottom photo above is my dining room table covered with styling props for the photo shoots. Everything had to be mapped out so that the photography in the book flowed and nothing got used more than once.
Noorbanu’s standards for excellence guided us. I am so happy we did not let her and – most importantly to her – her fans down.
Noorbanu’s 86th birthday would have been last week. She did not make it. She died of complications of Breast Cancer on June 10, 2020.
I had seen her a few days before. It was a Friday evening. Her son Akbar was there and she was bright and alert. I’d just popped in to bring some food and I didn’t stay long. When I went to leave, I hugged her and said, I love you Noorbanu. She perked up, looked me straight in the eye and said clear as a bell, I love you too. These were our last words. I’ll treasure them for as long as I am blessed to live.
Noorbanu leaves an extraordinary legacy. Her family and friends adored her. Her cookbooks are enjoyed by people the world over. And, just before she died, she held a copy of the second edition of Family Favourites in her hands. She was pleased we’d reached an agreement and it had just been released by our new publisher Touchwood Editions. It gave her a lot of peace to know her work would live on and continue to help the next generation of cooks.
In honour of Noorbanu, I’m going to spend the next week sharing my favourites of her recipes here on my Savour It All blog. I hope you’ll enjoy them. I wish you could have all met this incredibly talented, quietly humble, loving human being. I miss her madly but knowing her enriched my life and every single memory helps me continue to savour it all.