Calgary·Food in the City

Noorbanu Nimji spreads the joy of Ismaili cooking

Calgary Eyeopener food guide Julie Van Rosendaal goes into the kitchen of Calgary cookbook author Noorbanu Nimji to find out the inspiration behind her success in this edition of Food and the City.

4th cookbook currently being developed in the Calgarian's cozy kitchen in Roxboro

Even famed restaurateur Vikram Vij was apparently starstruck when he first met Mrs. Noorbanu Nimji.

Calgary cookbook author Noorbanu Nimji has sold more than a quarter million copies of her cookbooks. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Calgary food tour guide Karen Anderson recalls the time she went to introduce him to her mentor at his Vancouver restaurant.

"I already know who she is," he gushed. "I have her cookbooks!"

When you think of best-selling cookbook authors, especially those who have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, it's easy to imagine the Jamie Olivers and Nigella Lawsons of the world.

But 80-year-old Calgarian Noorbanu Nimji has sold over 260,000 copies of her books. It was Anderson who introduced me to Nimji. The two met in the '90s after Anderson took one of Noorbanu's classes at the Cookbook Company Cooks, and she's been learning from her ever since.

East African-Indian fusion

Noorbanu has roots in Gujarat, India, but religious upheaval in the 1920s spurred her family to migrate to East Africa where she was born. They brought their Indian culinary traditions with them, but adapted their home cooking to the availability of new ingredients, like coconut and cassava.

Living in a small coastal village, one with maybe a dozen houses, they cooked with the food they grew in their gardens.

"The ladies used to get up early and shell bharazi (pigeon peas) then come around with a basket, come to the back door, and sell them by the cupful," Anderson elaborates for Noorbanu as she simmered a pot with coconut milk in her kitchen.

In the coastal areas, coconut was widely used — both for its meat and the milk it produced.

"We had a special grater for crating coconut," Noorbanu reminisced. "You'd sit on it and there was a sharp claw you'd grate the coconut on, then cover it with water and press it out to make your own coconut milk."

Moving to Canada

Following political unrest in the '70s in Kenya and Uganda, the Aga Khan — longtime friends with Pierre Trudeau — urged his people to move to Canada, which brought them here.

"When my mom immigrated here, they were from that older generation," Noorbanu's daughter Khadija said. "There weren't that many — they were all younger, like my generation, in their 20s, who had just returned from getting their education in the U.K., and none of them knew how to cook."

In Calgary, there were plenty of young university students in their community who didn't know how to cook, and they asked Noorbanu for help. 

"We were raised with help," Noorbanu says of their childhood in East Africa. "And our parents were so geared toward education — kids must be educated. Girls must be educated. When my mom was growing up, they were in the kitchen helping, but we weren't really allowed to. We told to focus on our studies, not cook."

There was so much interest from university students that Noorbanu set up impromptu cooking classes in her home in Varsity, which was close to the campus, and took requests from a small group of young women who came to their house one evening a week. They would tell her what they wanted to learn to make next.

Unintentional start

One of the students transcribed the recipes, and Noorbanu's son, Akbar, would print out stacks to hand out at her classes. In this way she unintentionally built her recipe repertoire, and when one of the girls suggested self-publishing one, she pursued the idea.

A Spicy Touch is considered the bible of Ismaili cooking.- Calgary food tour guide Karen Anderson

Not knowing how to put together a cookbook, much less publish one, she enlisted help from her son and Centax books in Calgary. The company printed many well-known self-published titles at the time, including the Best of Bridge.

It was 1987, and her husband didn't think that self-publishing a cookbook was a smart investment.

But Noorbanu invited a woman from Centax over for dinner, and easily convinced them all the recipes were unique enough to make a go of it.

She was right. Since then, she has sold over a quarter million copies of her cookbooks.

'Bible of Ismaili cooking'

"A Spicy Touch is considered the bible of Ismaili cooking, and is given to every bride," Anderson said. "They're only available in Canada, but are sent all over the world."

They've become standard issue for newlyweds, and friends ask for boxes to take with them when travelling overseas.

She has released two cookbooks since her first, in 1994 and 2007, and is working on her fourth. She is compiling, editing and photographing it with the help of Anderson and a few friends in the sunny back room of her riverside house in Roxboro.

There is a constant stream of neighbours and relatives coming in to offer help, lend linens or decorative coffee sets to use as props, and to visit for awhile, nibbling on sticky gulab jambu, coconut-ginger kulfi and crumbly paak and melting mango-pistachio.

When I was there for lunch, she served mondazi and bharazi — pigeon peas in a creamy coconut sauce served with not-too-sweet triangular fried doughnuts — a traditional east African combination commonly served at breakfast.

The two go together like North American PB&J. Some say you'd never serve mondazi without bharazi. It's a pair as classic as Noorbanu and her kitchen.

Food and the City is a new weekly column from Calgary Eyeopener food guide Julie Van Rosendaal. Join in the conversation about good food in the city with the hashtag #eatyyc.


Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.