In the 1890s when my great-uncle, Jiwan Keshavjee left the family
home in Chotila, Gujarat, a province near Bombay (now called Mumbai).
He traveled on a steamer ship tracing the ancient trade routes from
India to Africa, and his three brothers, Velshi (my grandfather),
Naran, and Manji, followed soon after, leaving a life of struggle
and poverty in search of opportunity. Most Indian immigrants settled
in East Africa or Mozambique, but the brothers went almost as far
as the steamer could take them. Disembarking on the eastern coast
of South Africa, probably at Durban, our family often tries to imagine
why these unique and adventurous men, our Keshavjee clan founders,
traveled so far. Once the ship docked, the authorities sent them
far inland to Pretoria, the Dutch capital, and they lived there
for more than two generations.
in their youth, did not know the adversities they would face. There
were few Indians, and segregation was already thoroughly entrenched,
so we lived apart from the Bantu, the white Afrikaner, and the British
colonialists. The region proved to be a difficult place to live
and raise a family, but the brothers, though poor, were young and
strong. They worked hard as merchants, opening small grocery shops,
and soon were able to send to India for their wives, sisters, and
extended families. Each of the brothers had four to six children,
and this group was the start of what we now think of as the Keshavjee
clan. I am part of the second generation born in South Africa.
Velshi, was a very religious Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim who was strict
in his ways.
He and his three brothers built a beautiful mosque in the heart
of Pretoria’s Indian area. In those years, my grandfather
also developed a friendship with the famous Indian pacifist and
statesman Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma came to South Africa as a
young man, after he completed his law degree in England, and he
lived near Durban, on the coast. He traveled to Pretoria to try
an important case and befriended my grandfather, and even though
he was of the Hindu faith, he tutored my uncle Rajabali, helping
him to learn his Ismaili Muslim prayers. Because of Gandhi’s
close relationship and influence, Uncle Rajabali became a vegetarian.
Thus we all learned to cook many simple vegetarian dishes, some
of which are described in this cookbook. A number of our family
members even supported Mahatma Gandhi’s passive resistance
and participated in acts of civil disobedience to protest the passes
that all Indians once had to carry. Today letters between Gandhi
and my grandfather Velshi, are in Ghandi’s ashram near Ahmedabad,
time and great effort, the family prospered in their various businesses.
One uncle had a bakery, another had a gas station and yet another
a small machinery auction house. My father owned a movie theatre,
but the government censored the movies, not allowing us to see white
people kissing, for example, and they insisted that movie houses
be segregated. Indians, blacks, and white Afrikaner were all separated,
and my father was forced to choose between an Indian and a black
clientele. This segregation would precipitate my father’s
later decision to leave South Africa for Kenya.
generation of men brought young brides from India or from Indian
communities in East Africa so they could marry within their religion.
And so the family grew. To marry my mother, Sakina, my father had
to return to Vichia, a village in the province of Gujarat where
my family originated. My grandfather had arranged the marriage,
and Mahatma Gandhi was asked to take the wedding jewelry to my father’s
intended to seal the proposal. Sakina came to South Africa as a
young bride of fifteen and was immediately responsible for cooking,
under the auspices of the matriarch, my grandmother, Jabubai.
born in 1930, the second of five children. My mother died of a weak
heart when she was just 29 years old, so I became responsible for
my brothers and sisters when I was only twelve. Soon after, my father
remarried to a distant relative, whose name was also Sakina, the
family grew further with three more brothers.
clan of Keshavjees now numbered over one hundred people, and the
community was one large family, often sitting, praying, and eating
together. We lived in homes that were close together, where all
doors were open to all the children. In addition to caring for each
others‘ children, the women shared the cooking and cleaning
tasks.They made chapattis (unleavened bread), dhal, spinach and
potato curries, and other vegetarian dishes, all from organic ingredients
bought fresh each day from local farmers. They also made a great
variety of simple sweet desserts, and I have included some, such
as Seero, Sweet Potato Pudding, and Dood Paak, in the dessert section.
these meals as delicious and fun, and I have special memories of
all the children sitting around the fire with my grandfather, taking
turns stirring milk until it condensed into a moist cake that could
be used for making sweetmeats. Today we make the same dishes with
as you will see in my recipe for Barfi, which is sweet, smooth,
milky, and truly delightful.
were expected to learn to cook at an early age so that we would
be useful to the families into which we married. I started to cook
after my mother died, and I continued to learn from my aunt and
a very good African pishi (cook) named Charlie. He was a brilliant
chef who worked with many cuisines and was able to imitate a dish
after tasting it just once.
I am sure
Charlie worked for white families before us because he understood
English foods and standards of cooking. At this time my father,
who was self educated and yearned to be a doctor, decided that English
food was healthier and more sophisticated, so we learned yet another
style of cooking. Later my grandfather came to live with us, so
we cooked Indian food for him, and we all grew to love the food
of our homeland again. My stepmother brought yet another influence.
She used the same ingredients with slightly different quantities
that created different tastes.
are fond memories, with cooking as a central influence. Those times
helped bond our family, young and old alike, and it reminds me of
the saying, It takes a village to raise a child.” I try to
replicate these fun times with my grandchildren.
when I was fifteen, my father decided to go with the family to Dar
es Salaam in East Africa. We went to attend a ceremony honoring
our spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, Sultan Mohamed Shah, who had
become Imam of the Ismailis when he was eight years old and had
served as our leader for seventy-five years. This Diamond Jubilee
brought Ismailis from all over the world, and they watched as our
Imam, a heavy-set man, was weighed against an equal amount of un-cut
diamonds. The entire East African congregation had contributed money
to purchase the diamonds, and once he was weighed, this treasure
trove was sold again to establish a trust. Now called the Aga Khan
Foundation, this trust is of great importance to the Ismailis. It
is used for humanitarian aid around the world and to provide low-interest
loans to Ismailis everywhere, to build homes, attend universities,
and start businesses. I sat in the front and witnessed this amazing
to the diamond jubilee was a trip of a lifetime…a real safari.
The countries through which we traveled, now called Zambia, Zimbabwe,
Tanzania and Kenya, were beautiful. The roads were all murum (dirt),
so it took us two weeks to cover 3,000 miles, and we had enough
flat tires to last a lifetime! But we made many friends along the
way and ate rich and different foods that are part of the Indian
cuisine of East Africa. We learned some mouthwatering recipes like
Biryani, chicken curries, and mutton curries.
was to have a major impact on my family. It was when I first met
my future husband. It was also a time when apartheid was becoming
a huge and oppressive issue for our family, and my father was contemplating
leaving South Africa. |n 1951, he and his cousins would decide to
seek their fortunes in a more open society. Following the advice
of our Imam, they would migrate to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya,
and in later years, many members of the Keshavjee clan would follow.
A few remained in South Africa, however, this was to be the first
of the moves that would scatter the clan around the world.
of the clan now number approximately 2,000 and have settled all
over the world. We keep in touch by e-mail today, but we can recognize
each other a mile away, so strong are our physical resemblances.
Once a Keshavjee speaks, the recognition is complete, because of
tone of voice and abundant use of gestures. We confirm our kinship
by asking, “Where have you been and what have you done?”
The answers are inevitably bold and enthusiastic, so it seems that
most members of the Keshavjee clan have adventurous souls and ambitious
dreams. We are also people with a good sense of humor, and we love
family get-togethers over a sumptuous meal.
while the family was still in South Africa, we made another foray
back to East Africa, and my future husband, Shamas Umedaly, wooed
me in Uganda with his borrowed Singer sports car. We were married
in Nairobi, Kenya, in August of that year, when I was a mere seventeen
years old, and we then moved to Uganda to live with his family.
There I was in for a shock.
Africa we had electric appliances and gadgets, but in Uganda we
had no such conveniences. We cooked with wood-burning stoves, heated
water for each bath in a large samovar, and even had to grind our
own masala. My cooking style and flavors were so different from
my mother-in-law’s that I had to learn yet another way to
prepare food. She was not easy to please, so I was determined to
be the best cook and use all my skills to impress her. I learned
to make coconut curries, with coconut meat we ground from scratch,
and I mastered many East African-style desserts, such as Mango Pudding,
Faluda, Shikand, Kulfi, and Carrot Halva. We stayed with my in-laws
for seven years.
midst of these activities, I had five children. Being unable to
afford full-time help, I learned to raise our children, clean, wash
clothes, sew, and drive (I even raced cars competitively), but mainly
to cook quickly and proficiently. I was also efficient in caring
for my children, and they often laugh about the way I would bathe
them one after the other as if operating an assembly line. They
were always nicely dressed, clean, and well fed.
all my children were born, I went to England for three months to
study the Montessori method of education. I wanted more for my family,
and when I returned, I opened two schools with one hundred and thirty
children in each. Now I had the money to hire a full-time pishi,
whom I taught all the various dishes I had learned, but I continued
to cook, too. I learned to make party dishes like Samosas, Kebobs,
Muthia, Kachori and Chicken Tikka, in the East African way, and
I also added some Italian and Chinese dishes to my repertoire. The
form, texture and taste of my chapattis became better than ever—
even my critical grandfather would have approved.
disaster struck, when my family and eighty thousand others fell
victim to ethnic cleansing by Uganda’s dictatorial president
Idi Amin. We were told to leave our houses open and our cars with
keys in the ignition and were forced to leave the country. Once
again the family and its ever-growing clan were scattered to the
winds, to Europe, Australia, or North America, and we began again
in new lands. Where we went depended on which country would accept
us. My youngest daughter, only fourteen, went to Medford, Oregon,
to relatives of a university professor we had befriended in Uganda.
My nineteen year old daughter went to a university in West Virginia.
The rest of us acquired Canadian immigration papers and found our
way to Ontario.
as it was, I was happy to call Canada my home. I had always wanted
to live there and had admired the trees, mountains and rivers that
I saw and read about in books. Eventually we moved to North Vancouver,
one of the most beautiful places in the world, and there I started
a licensed daycare in my house, and we began our lives again. Since
then, I have taught at least a thousand children. I retired in 1997,
at the age of 67, still living in North Vancouver, British Columbia.
Our children now live all over the continent, and all five of them
went to University. I am very proud of their accomplishments.
family first came to North America, there were few of us, and Indian
cuisine was not popular. It was difficult to find the correct ingredients,
and we had to improvise, altering recipes to be more flexible and
even more practical.
My children now began to call home to ask for recipes. My youngest
daughter, for instance, made chicken curry for the first time just
after she arrived in Oregon. She called me and asked, “Mum
how do you make your curry brown—mine is red?” The answer
was simple, “Cook the onions longer next time.” But
the instructions had to be given long-distance.
my children and grandchildren often ask me how to cook various dishes,
and they have been requesting a legacy of fast, tasty recipes that
embody the meanderings of our diaspora. I have spent four years
on this cookbook, working out the measurements and accurately noting
the best cooking methods. It has been an enjoyable but frustrating
experience because I had learned to cook by feel, smell, color,
texture and the look of the dish. We used to pour the ingredients
into the palms of our hands or the lid of the container, sensing
the right amount while adjusting for the likes and dislikes of the
guests. I must admit that the most difficult part about writing
this book has been developing exact measurements.
were refining and testing these recipes my daughter, Muneera, and
I would often cook in the early morning. Then we would invite friends
and acquaintances to come to the house and try the recipes while
we observed. We made note of questions and did taste tests to ensure
the consistencies of flavor, texture, color and aroma of each dish.
Laughter filled the house, taking me back to the joyful days in
South Africa with my grandfather and cousins.
this book has been a labor of love, helping me rediscover the recipes
that nourished my family. It has encouraged me to invite old memories
and relish new thoughts. With each recipe I remember a person, a
story and a feeling, In this book I see so many colors, smell the
spices, hear the laughter, and I feel the tears and the challenges
that have made me who I am today. I remember my father’s response
to my request for flight lessons, when I wanted to be a pilot: “Lella,
you learn how to pilot your pots and pans!” And here I am
actually doing it. But most importantly I realize that the dishes
form a bridge from my past to my grandchildren.
recipes will be a bridge to you and your families, too. I look forward
to sharing these tasty, quick dishes with you. Enjoy forming your
own memories over these meals.