14 Feb A Tribute to Noorbanu Nimji, 1934 – 2020
“A Spicy Touch is the mirror of the culinary history of a people.”
Noorbanu Nimji, the author of the best-selling and internationally acclaimed A Spicy Touch series of cookbooks, was born August 29, 1934 in Nairobi, Kenya. She was one of 10 children and grew up in a close and loving family. Her mother ran a bakery and her father a hotel. Great food and hospitality were the foundation of their lives. So when it came time to marry, a son of the Nimji family, who were also in the hospitality industry, was a very good fit.
She got married at age 19 to Abjulmajid (Majid) Nimji and moved in with her in-laws as was the custom. With Noorbanu joining the family there were about 17 extended families living together. They had a large family compound with gardens and separate apartments within the home for each nuclear family.
Meals were always shared family time. The women prepared the meals together. Noorbanu learned to cook from her sisters and mother-in-law. Noorbanu would say, “I really didn’t know how to cook much when I got married but, I was a quick study and soon, whatever part of the meal I made my father-in-law really praised and that made me want to do even better.”
The women of the family made dal, vegetable dishes, breads, sweets, and pickles daily. Being Muslim, they also prepared meat dishes frequently. They took turns going to the market and the dishes they prepared were influenced by the seasons and East Africa’s abundance of produce.
Noorbanu loved her homeland. She described Kenya as “God’s country” and “a paradise.” The family had a large vegetable patch and avocados and mangoes were plentiful in their garden. This was a bittersweet memory she’d share during Canada’s long cold winters when avocados were hard green lumps that came from far away and the taste of mango was often just pulp from a can.
Noorbanu and her husband were blessed with four children – Khadija, Rosie, Nazlin and Akbar. Though there was great harmony in the family, people of their Ismaili faith had known their share of struggle – and soon, they would again.
Noorbanu’s ancestors were Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims who had emigrated from Gujarat in India in the 1920s. The Ismailis make up about 12 to 15 million of the world’s two billion Muslims. They are Shia, part of one branch of Islam, with the Sunni forming the other main group. The Ismaili faith has a long history.
Starting in the early 600s, in the time of The Prophet Mohammed in Medina and Mecca (now modern-day Saudi Arabia), the roots of Ismailism spread through the Levant and Yemen, later into North Africa and Persia. In the first millennium, the faith sprang up in Central Asia and finally South Asia, where Ismailis including Noorbanu’s ancestors enjoyed several stable centuries in Gujarat, India. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they experienced persecution and unrest and large numbers of these Ismailis moved to East Africa in search of opportunity for both themselves and future generations.
This history explains how a woman from Nairobi was such a wonderful Indian cook. It also gives insight into why the food of the Ismaili people is as diverse as the countries and cultures where they live and practice their faith.
Noorbanu’s particular style of Indian cooking reflects the dishes of Ismailis from Gujarat with North Indian regional influences. Life in Kenya added East African dishes to their repertoire. This combination is sometimes referred to as Khoja food.
For Noorbanu, there’s also an undeniable influence on her cooking from the country’s time under British rule (this also happened in India under the British Raj and explains the love affair with puddings and fruitcakes that you’ll find in both countries). Noorbanu’s move to Canada fuzed yet another influence of place on her cooking.
Canada and the East Africa Ismaili Diaspora
The Nimji family left Kenya for Calgary (via England) in the mid-1970s during the expulsion of “non-Africans” from East Africa by then-president of Uganda, Idi Amin. Noorbanu, her family and all of their people, walked away from everything they owned.
In caring for his people during the dispersion from their homeland, The Aga Khan, the hereditary Imam (spiritual and temporal leader) of the Ismaili people, sought asylum for East Africa Ismailis throughout the world. They now live in more than 25 countries. Approximately 40,000 East African Ismailis found refuge in Canada during the 1970s.
Soon after her arrival in Calgary, the Ismaili community noticed the exceptional quality of Noorbanu’s food she shared at gatherings. It was the first time in their history that so many East African Ismailis were living outside of multi-generational households where recipes were handed down by oral tradition. Favourite ingredients were not available in Canada and cooking mentors were sorely lacking. Young people began asking “Noorbanu Aunty” for cooking lessons. She was a mother figure for the displaced youth of her community.
Noorbanu happily taught small group classes in her home for about a decade. Her students forced her to measure ingredients and explain what she was doing in detail. They gave her feedback on how things turned out on their own. She was diligent at perfecting her recipes until they got the same results that she achieved.
Her son Akbar, a high school student at the time, helped by typing up the recipes. Then one day, a friend looked at the typewritten stack of recipes and suggested the family publish them in a cookbook. Noorbanu went on to write and publish three volumes of A Spicy Touch cookbooks.
The first book came in 1986. “The little red book” – as it is known – is particularly popular. In fact, A Spicy Touch, Volume I has become a quintessential part of Ismaili households. And, though it was only ever self-published in Canada, it has made its way to every country the East African Ismailis live today. It’s gifted to almost all newly wed couples and is frequently touted as the saviour of marriages. It’s sold over 250,000 copies but, it almost never happened.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
As mentioned, the Nimji’s arrived in Calgary after walking away from everything they owned. Even 10 years later, when Noorbanu took her typewritten recipes to a printer to see about creating a book, the price quoted was out of reach for the family.
The printer did think the recipes sounded delicious though so Noorbanu, ever hospitable and friendly, invited her to come to dinner and try the food. Tasting Noorbanu’s food was all it took for the printer to become an investor. The printer funded the initial print run and Noorbanu paid her back with profits until the profits reached a point where she could finance the enterprise on her own.
Unstoppable as a cook and curious traveller, Noorbanu published A Spicy Touch Volume II focusing on contemporary Indian, African, Middle Eastern and Oriental Cuisine in 1992. Noorbanu believed a culture’s history and traditions are reflected in its cuisine. In the introduction to this book she said, “When we share with friends of other ethnic backgrounds, we share a way of life that evolved over many generations…Exchanging food and hospitality is a rewarding and exciting way to experience those traditions firsthand.”
Though Volume Two is out of print, it is significant because after its publication Noorbanu began teaching cooking lessons outside of her own culture for the first time. Gail Norton of Calgary’s Cookbook Co. Cooks frequently invited her to teach. Gail was a huge fan of Noorbanu and notes that, “When A Spicy Touch first hit the shelves at the Cookbook Co. Cooks over 30 years ago it was an instant success…her Kuku Paka (chicken, egg and potatoes in coconut cream) is one of my all-time favourite dishes.”
By the early 2000s, Noorbanu’s following were asking for another book from her. A Spicy Touch Volume III – A Fusion of East African and Indian Cuisine was published in 2007. The fifteen year gap between books was largely due to the failing health of her beloved husband. Mr. Nimji died in 2004, but his constant encouragement and support for her efforts inspired Noorbanu to continue her work. In Volume III, Noorbanu continued refining technique and expanding her recipe repertoire now that international ingredients were so much more readily available. After her husband’s prolonged illness, she also incorporated a more healthful approach to the use of oils and the inclusion of grains and vegetables.
Taking on A Spice Apprentice
In 1996, Calgary writer and food tour operator, Karen Anderson attended one of Noorbanu’s cooking classes at The Cookbook Co. Cooks. She was fascinated watching Noorbanu’s mastery of Indian cooking. Years later, as a food columnist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Anderson interviewed Noorbanu as the Alberta connection to the story of Great Britain’s changing tastes and its declaration of “curry” as the new national dish.
Anderson says, “My favourite local Indian cook, Noorbanu, helped me understand the difference between curry (spicy gravy) and masalas (the art of blending spices to create flavourful dishes), and to share the story with a Canadian audience.” Noorbanu and Anderson clicked and became fast friends with a similar sense of humour and organized “Virgo ways.”
When Noorbanu was in search of a writer and recipe tester for a fourth book, Anderson offered her services, and Noorbanu hired her on the spot. “With Noorbanu’s help my own Indian cooking was transformed with afternoons spent quietly folding samosas together, having her by my side teaching me to alter the spicing of a dish and with shopping excursions to source authentic ingredients I’d have never found on my own.”
Having learned so much, in 2008, Anderson asked Noorbanu if she would teach public classes again. The pair held these classes “in the field.” They helped others overcome the barriers that typically keep people of non-Indian ancestry from cooking Indian food.
They led their guests directly to the source of ingredients in Calgary. The groups learned to roast and grind spices and make their own masala daba (spice box). Karen and Noorbanu demonstrated the tricky task of samosa wrapping. And, just for fun, they ate at belly-busting Indian buffets and drank a lot of chai tea.
The students added immensely to the duo’s understanding of what fellow home cooks might like to learn and what would inspire people to buy yet another cookbook. Indian and all cookbooks had become quite mainstream by this time.
Anderson’s annual cuisine and culture trips to India provided her with greater exposure to Indian cooking and focused observation of methods. She saw Noorbanu’s techniques reflected in chefs half a world away. Patterns emerged. She was better able to articulate the underlying principles of the cuisine. Noorbanu also enjoyed several trips to India with her family. And still it took something more for them to finish the book they started together – Noorbanu’s final book.
Opening the Floodgates
In the Great Alberta Flood of 2013, Noorbanu’s inventory of previous editions of A Spicy Touch cookbooks were ruined. The pair joked that it took a lot of water to get their project truly flowing. Losing all those books meant they had to finish what they’d started.
A Spicy Touch – Family Favourites from Noorbanu Nimji’s Kitchen, published in 2015, is a “best of” collection of the Nimji family’s favourite recipes. Every recipe was tested, retested and revised. New recipes that emerged since the previous book was published in 2007 were added to keep it interesting for long-time A Spicy Touch fans.
Solid home-cooking skills are increasingly rare. The pair recognized that it had been a few generations since families had a dedicated home cook as the norm. They wrote this book so users would feel Noorbanu’s presence in their kitchen — at their elbow — to teach them as they cooked her delicious food.
Anderson acted as writer and production editor and enlisted the talents of food stylist Julie Van Rosendaal to establish a fresh look for the book. Photographer, Pauli-Ann Carriere made numerous trips from Vancouver to capture the beauty of the food. All photos were taken in the natural light of Noorbanu’s sunroom just off the kitchen in her home.
During one concentrated week in the spring of 2015, the whole Nimji family was enlisted to help as everyone worked to make, style and photograph over 60 of the book’s 225 recipes. Granddaughters ironed. Daughter Khadija made sweets and drinks. Son-in-law and grandson, Naseer and Imran, took care of grilling. Noorbanu started making chutneys the week before. Karen and Pauli-Ann coordinated all the styling props. Everyone worked about 18 hours a day that week.
Noorbanu was 80 years old at the time. Except for that one crazy week, she was energized throughout the project. She had a laser beam focus on making it her best book – one for her grandchildren to cherish always.
In 2016, Family Favourites, as it’s known, started the year winning Silver in the IPPY – Independent Publishers Book Awards – for Best International Cookbook. In June, Noorbanu, at age 82, was included in Western Living magazine’s list of Top Foodies for 2016. Later that year, the book won silver at the Taste Canada Awards for Best Regional/Cultural Cookbook.
The Final Chapter
After the success of Family Favourites, Noorbanu retired from public appearances. She was always devoted to her family and she spent the final years of her life surrounded by their love. She enjoyed seeing a few of her grandchildren married and most especially, the birth of her first great-grandchild.
Noorbanu was at peace. She had complete faith in Allah and was ready to die. Still, for the sake of her family, she battled cancer when it came. With her usual grace and selflessness, it was like she was allowing everyone to adjust to the thought of life without her.
A Legacy of Love
Noorbanu Nimji leaves much to be remembered by. She was the first to capture the food knowledge of her culture in writing. This is what the United Nations calls, the intangible knowledge that defines a culture.
With globalization, loss of value for cooking abilities and diasporas like the East African Ismailis experienced, it would’ve been all too easy for their particular cuisine to be lost forever. With that, would be a loss of a deeper understanding of the people as well. Noorbanu helped preserve that. That’s her legacy at a high level.
At a practical level, Noorbanu helped hundreds of thousands of people cook delicious food. She crossed cultural barriers and took her food mainstream. In another testimony to its deliciousness she won awards nationally and internationally. She crossed generations and leaves her work in a shape that future cooks can relate to and utilize to maximum capacity.
As great as these impacts are, Noorbanu and her family are largely unaware of the extent of their reach. Noorbanu’s writing partner, Anderson, relays this story, “Often when Noorbanu and I would go shopping for Indian goods, we’d run into her fans. They would stop her and share stories of their love of the books. Noorbanu would beam a smile and wish them well. But, when they left, she would shrug her shoulders and joke, ‘I’m a little famous.’ She laughed it off because something as frivolous as fame never mattered to her. Sharing and selflessly making a difference in people’s lives, that’s what inspired her everyday of her life.”
Noorbanu would tell you her greatest accomplishments were her loving marriage, raising her children to love and contribute to society and living long enough to be able to devote herself to her grandchildren.
Supporting The Aga Khan, meeting him several times in her life and being available to the grace of Allah through daily meditation and prayer gave her the ultimate in fulfillment. She exemplified a wholly loving being and had enough love to mother the world. That is the legacy of love Noorbanu Nimji leaves this world. She died of complications of Breast Cancer on June, 10, 2020. She is dearly missed.