Heartwarming story about the author of another recipe book and the multiple influences of her life story on the various cooking styles she eventually developed: ‘Mamajee’s Kitchen’ by Lella Umedally.
Story submitted by easynash
Keshavjee-Umedaly Family Story
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.
The brothers, 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.
My grandfather, 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, India.
With 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.
My father’s 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.
I was 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.
The growing 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.
I remember 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 powdered milk,
as you will see in my recipe for Barfi, which is sweet, smooth, milky, and truly delightful.
Girls 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.
These 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.
In 1946, 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 ceremonial occasion.
The journey 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.
This journey 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.
Members 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.
In 1948, 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.
In South 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.
In the 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.
After 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.
In 1972, 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 hard 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.
When my 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.
Today, 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.
When we 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.
Writing 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.
Now these 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.
Lella S. Umedaly