Ismaili cuisine pairs Indian flavours with an African touch

A progressive community that traces its roots back to Gujarat adds sizzle to the Metro Vancouver dining scene

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      Diners can be forgiven if they sometimes feel a bit confused when they’re at an Ismaili-owned restaurant in the Lower Mainland.

      That’s because customers often see African images or artworks inside these establishments, but the food tastes distinctly Indian. Is it African or South Asian cuisine?

      The answer can be found in the community’s history. Many local Ismaili Muslims’ ancestors migrated from the western Indian state of Gujarat to what is now known as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania during the late 19th century and early 20th century. When these countries became independent, the Ismailis succeeded magnificently.

      But their peaceful lives were rudely interrupted when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled them and other Indians in 1972.

      With the encouragement of their progressive spiritual leader, Prince Shah Karim al-Hussayni, Aga Khan IV, many made their way to Canada, where they’ve thrived in the professions, business, and the media.

      There's a reminder of the Ember owner's Ugandan roots on the patio.
      Charlie Smith

      “The Ismailis, who emerged in the eighth century out of a schism in Shia Islam, have long taken the view that the Qu’ran (Islam’s central religious text) is to be read as a set of allegories and reinterpreted over time,” wrote academic Rahim Mohamed in Policy Options magazine in 2017.

      Their food is also unique—a combination of hearty Indian Muslim cooking with East African influences. Here are four Ismaili restaurants worth visiting in Metro Vancouver if you’re seeking something different from the standard North Indian fare and South Indian dosas.

      Yes, almost every South Asian restaurant in the region serves butter chicken, but none does it like Ember Indian Kitchen.
      Charlie Smith

      Ember Indian Kitchen

      135–6168 London Road, Steveston

      Owner Amin Sunderji used to own a furniture gallery in Yaletown, and his impeccable sense of design is on display at Ember, which is perched alongside the south arm of the Fraser River.

      In this elegant establishment with a high ceiling and subtle nods to his former home in Uganda, Sunderji has adapted traditional Ismaili cooking to please western palates without going so far as to have it labelled “fusion”. No wonder Steveston was recently voted the best Lower Mainland neighbourhood by CBC listeners.

      Recommended dish: The butter chicken is perhaps the best in the Lower Mainland, made with a lighter touch and a succulent tomato tang. Order some naan so you can be sure to soak up every drop.

      Jambo Grill

      Jambo Grill Tandoor & Paan House

      3219 Kingsway

      The first thing you’ll notice upon entering Jambo is the gallery of politicians and other celebrities who’ve visited this local landmark, owned by Nash Mawani since 2005. Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper, and the longtime MLA, Health Minister Adrian Dix, are among the scores of famous people who have dined here over the years.

      In recent years, Mawani has cut back somewhat on the number of African works of art, but his staff wear colourful attire that remains a reminder of his Kenyan roots.

      Recommended dish: Biryani is a complex, stand-alone rice dish popular in many Muslim households. Nobody makes it as fiery and authentic as Jambo.

      Simba's Grill probably has more African artworks than any other Ismaili-owned restaurant.
      Charlie Smith

      Simba’s Grill

      201–3300 Boundary Road, Burnaby

      Some West End residents were saddened when Kenyan immigrant Kurshid Khan closed his Denman Street eatery in 2019. But his new establishment in Burnaby features many of the same East African–infused dishes and lots of gorgeous art.

      Plus, it’s far more spacious than his former establishment, with plenty of distance between tables in the COVID era.

      Recommended dish: Mishkaki—large skewers of piquant beef cubes marinated and barbecued—comes on a bed of potato wedges. It’s out of this world.

      Patra bhajia can be found at Cayenne Bistro.
      Charlie Smith

      Cayenne Bistro & Grill

      7677 6th Street, Burnaby

      The Kampala-born owner of this small eatery in South Burnaby, Zeimina Bharmal, came to Canada via Sweden. With a modern décor and an extensive menu, Cayenne offers diners a multitude of choices in a relaxed environment.

      It’s one of several South Asian–owned businesses that appear to be thriving in this neighbourhood near the border with New Westminster.

      Recommended dish: Patra bhajia is a Gujarati snack rarely seen on Indian restaurant menus in Canada. If you’re feeling adventurous, Cayenne serves these steamed colocasia leaves with a tasty mix of sweet and sour spices.

      Keep in mind that if you’re in the mood for an Ismaili lunch or takeout, there are two other options: Kilimanjaro Snack House & Catering (789 Kingsway) and Safari Snack House & Grill (5121 Canada Way, Burnaby).