December 13, 2017

Raj Kapuri nights

When I was young, some nights after the Friday evening prayers, my uncle would drive me from Etobicoke to the Donlands and we’d go together to Raj Kapuri Paan & Snacks.

Once there, my uncle would undoubtedly meet friends—the restaurant was a hotbed for the Khoja Ismaili community in those years—and I would be left to enjoy my donair, mishkaki, and mogo on my own (occasionally, with cousins or friends of my own age), revelling in the community of the restaurant where everyone seemed to know each other. At the end of the night, my uncle would let me taste his paan—I developed a liking for it, and when I was older, he would buy me my own—before driving me home.

Occasionally, we’d change the routine and go next door to Simba Grill; even there, everyone seemed to know each other, as if the walls between the two restaurants were porous and they were all just extensions of the same community, looking to find a place to congregate. (On the Simba Grill nights, we’d still inevitably stop by Raj Kapuri to buy paan before heading home.)

The sounds, the smells, and most importantly, the tastes of these two restaurants were a big part of my childhood and youth. They may not have been in my neighbourhood, but they were an extension of my community: they were a place where it was okay to be an Indian-East African, and where that nebulous, hard-to-define culture was easily understood.

It’s hard to define the cuisine of my youth, and how that cuisine has defined my palate now. I grew up eating food that wasn’t quite stereotypically Indian, wasn’t quite identifiably African. When I think of my favourite dishes, I still think of mogo and mishkaki, of ugali and marage, of barazi and mandazi.

It’s hard to explain the in-betweenness of this cuisine to people who have not experienced it; it is the food of the Indian-East African diaspora, a cuisine borne of location and economics and politics and circumstance. It is food defined by not the ingredients, but by the community that congregates to enjoy it in homes and small restaurants.

It is not a cuisine that often gets highlighted in food blogs, or featured in culinary magazines. Which is why I was so excited to see this feature in Toronto Life magazine by Suresh Doss and Salima Jivraj, who take a tour through some of the haunts of my childhood:

Raj Kapuri: Jivraj recalls spending many nights with her family at this tiny take-out and sweets shop. We used to come here all the time because it was a popular meeting spot for the local Tanzanian community,” she says. People would stop in for samosas and fried fish. But what I love most about this place is their donairs.” The owners have changed since Raj Kapuri opened over 30 years ago, but Jivraj still swears by them.

Simba Grill: For family gatherings and sit-down meals, this is where Jivraj and her family eat. She says the family owned restaurant does East African cuisine very well. Many East-African dishes are labour intensive, and Simba Grill consistently produces some of the best home-style food I’ve had,” Jivraj said.

This article is more than nostalgia: it’s an acknowledgement that not only does the food exist, but that the community that came together through that food is still here, still coming together to relish in flavours of our heritage and tradition.

It’s a lovely reminder of who I am, where I come from, and what I love—and a reminder that I haven’t eaten barazi and mandazi for much too long. I’ll have to remedy that on my next trip home.