“Not Your Butter Chicken” takes a deeply personal look at Western Canada’s rich South Asian history

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      As family histories go, it’s more fascinating than most, beginning with a law enforcement officer who dropped everything at age 36 in Fiji for an arranged marriage in Canada. Soon after came a daughter, Shiva Reddy, who became a hockey goalie at age six, eventually giving up her dreams of on-ice stardom to become one of Vancouver’s most recognized sommeliers, as well as a budding media personality.

      In the four-part documentary series Not Your Butter Chicken, Reddy finds herself road-tripping across Western Canada, telling the stories of South Asians who’ve helped build thriving communities in places like Kamloops and Fort McMurray. But just as rewarding were the lessons that the East Vancouver food and drink trailblazer learned about herself and her own family, including her mom, who is now battling dementia.

      “My mother was the first female police officer in Fiji,” Reddy recounts. “At age 36—which was apparently too old for a woman—her parents made her get married. She picked the guy who seemed the most handsome, and he ended up being about 20 years older than her. She gave up everything, moved here, and then my dad passed soon after, when I was about five.”

      Not Your Butter Chicken is partly about an ailing mother and her daughter bonding, often through cooking. Piecing together her family history has required some Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing.

      “Both my parents were originally from Fiji,” she says. “He had migrated here, probably in the ’60s, and then after his first wife passed, my mom had the arranged marriage. She came here and didn’t even know he’d been married previously, didn’t know that he was older, didn’t know that he had six kids that were about her age—a lot of big surprises for her.”

      The idea for Not Your Butter Chicken came during Covid. As her mother’s dementia progressed, Reddy moved in with her as a caregiver, the two bonding over food.

      “I realized that she had all these recipes because she was such a good cook,” recalls Reddy, who is a sommelier at Burdock and Co and the food and drink columnist for CBC’s On the Coast. “Whenever I was a kid, she’d cook and somehow kick me out of the kitchen with a cup of chai. When she started having a lot of hospital visits, she couldn’t eat the food there because it was so disgusting. So by memory, I started to piece together her recipes.”

      The two began seriously cooking together as Covid hit, preparing food in large batches that they’d at first share with neighbours and friends. During the second pandemic shutdown, it was struggling service industry workers. When news of their good deeds surfaced on CBC, filmmakers Priyanka Desai and Joanna Wong reached out with a pitch.

      Eschewing big cities for smaller communities, Not Your Butter Chicken was shot in Kamloops, Fort McMurray, Lethbridge, and Kelowna, episodes having Reddy spend time with everyone from  farmers and winemakers to comedians and scientists, diving into sacrifices made for new starts in Canada, as well as the rewards that come from community building.

      The team behind the camera would give Reddy as little information as possible about each destination, hoping that revelations from each stop would be important ones for the host.

      Sometimes the episodes played out like they were dreamed up by her. In the Kamloops-shot “Food Is Sewa”, she gets to hang out with groundbreaking South Asian broadcaster Meera Bains, who’s one of her idols. “Ready to Roti” has Reddy stepping onto the ice with Dampy Brar, who has made it his life’s mission to grow the game in the South Asian community.

      “I started playing at age six or seven, and I just fell in love with the crease,” Reddy says. “It was the coolest place to be. I think when you’ve got immigrants coming to Canada there’s this pride you have with being Canadian. You’d see all these teams—the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks—and you wanted to align with them. My older siblings played; I just kind of dived right into it.”

      Not Your Butter Chicken’s creative team of Desai and Wong spent no small amount of time researching South Asian experiences in the towns visited in the series.

      “In Kamloops, I had no idea about the sawmills that were there and how much hard work the Sikh community did there,” Reddy says. “How they created one of the first temples in BC, and how strong that community still is. I met this really cool potato farmer who actually worked in a sawmill—he’d look through this tiny little window that wasn’t even the size of his face every day, wanting to one day have his own piece of land and a farm. He did it, and now he’s one of the largest potato farmers in the country. He came here with absolutely nothing, got paid a lot less than most people like a lot of South Asians did, and so had to work harder.”

      Reddy reports that things are looking better than they once did for her mom, who had some rough periods during the filming of Not Your Butter Chicken.

      “She’s in a home now, and it’s shocking that she’s doing so well,” she shares. “It’s something where the lights are all on but she’s not quite firing on all cylinders. But she’s as healthy and happy as she can be.”

      That makes the documenting of her journey somehow even more gratifying, mostly because it looks like there are more chapters to be written.