When Dolly Pisani stands in front of a stove, she loses herself in chopping, tossing, mixing, simmering … and her worries are overtaken by the satisfaction of having created something new. It’s a calling she discovered after the loss of her mother when Dolly was about 13. She started helping out in the kitchen and, before long, what was a necessity became an enduring passion.
From the beginning, cooking made her feel happy, recalls Dolly, who grew up in Tanzania and immigrated to Vancouver with her husband and children in 1975. She learned to make dishes like gobi nu shaak (cauliflower curry), kukra nu shaak (chicken curry), rotli (chapati), daal and fried masala fish from her father. “He was just a natural cook,” she says.
In 1985, Dolly and her husband opened Zeenaz, the first restaurant offering East African-style Indian cuisine in Vancouver, to rave reviews from local food critics. The restaurant was promoted by Tourism Vancouver, recommended in the Lonely Planet, and drew visitors from around the world before closing in 2002. Dolly’s culinary journey continued with Zeenaz Kitchen, a catering and food company famous for its chevda (Indian snack mix), before she retired in 2018.
Dolly, like many East African Ismaili women of her generation, rarely uses recipes. Instead, she cooks by smell, sight and taste. In 2012, her daughter Zenobia Virji began working with her to document how she cooks. They produced a recipe book to pass on to future generations.
For this issue, they’ve shared recipes for two dishes popular among East African-Indian Ismailis. Both are tasty examples of the fusion of East African and Gujarati cuisines that developed after Khoja Ismailis migrated to East Africa from Gujarat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.