Interview With Amyn Sunderji- On Food, Music, and Memories

Amyn1

Where were you born?

Tororo, Uganda

And when did you come to Vancouver?

I landed in Vancouver on the 13th of February, 1974. The sun was shining and crocuses were in bloom.

Aww,… beautiful. How long after that did you open up your restaurant- Kilimanjaro?

I opened the restaurant in November of 1978.

What made you decide on a restaurant?

When I was in the States at university, after years’ worth of cafeteria food, (laughs) I got tired of it.

Oh, I didn’t know that (laughs).

Yes, so I wrote to my mom, and asked her for recipes. She sent me some, as well as spices. And I started cooking at home. So I was always interested in cooking while I was going to university.

And that continued here in Canada?

Well, over here, I first got an insurance business- a mutual funds business.  I was selling insurance, I was selling mutual funds. But I would always take the clients out for lunch.

I think I see where this is going (laughs)

Yes, so there was this guy- Madat. He owned the Africana Restaurant on Davie Street at that time. I told him that I was thinking of investing in the restaurant business. He mentioned that there was a restaurant in Gastown.

I was just interested because he had an expertise in cooking. And I wanted a nice place to show to my clients. We both went to the place in Gastown to put things together, and we opened the restaurant. But as it happens in many partnerships (laughs), I inherited it at the end of 1979 .

Wow! (laughs)

Yeah. We had some issues to deal with. But we had a clause- either he buys me out or I buy him out. So I bought him out with the help of your grandfather and your other aunt and uncle (smiles).

And that’s how Kilimanjaro became mine in 1979.  

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Photo by Tasleem Laila

How would you describe the type of food at the Kili, as I remember you calling it?

Well, being from East Africa, our background is quite interesting. Yes, we’re Indian. So the food had Indian flavours in it. But then again, it was also influenced by the Middle Eastern culture because we are Muslims, and we eat shish kababs and the African meals.

And then there was my time in Zaire, The Congo, which had an influence. That is where I got exposed to French Belgium cooking, and Congomani (Congolese) food. which I enjoyed.

The first restaurant (as we had moved from one location to another nearby) was more on the Indian side, but it also had the lamb shanks and the big fish as well, like marlin or shark and prawns. And that’s where we invented the dish Prawns Piri Piri, which is a complete invention of mine (smiles).

What is in Prawns Piri Piri?

Prawns Piri Piri was prawns marinated in very, very hot piri piri oil and barbequed.

we didn’t have the proper equipment for a barbecue or even for grilling it. So I developed a recipe of a quick fry. This involves throwing butter and olive oil on a pan, and then adding garlic, and hot chilli, and piri piri oil. You throw the prawns in, and finish off with smoked paprika and fresh parsley.

And that’s how Prawns Piri Piri was invented. That became the most popular dish. (smiles).

Amyn Uncle at the BBQ

What were some of the other popular dishes?

The lamb curry and samosas were also very popular. There’s no two ways about it. We got a huge write up about it in 1978.

The lamb curry was written up about in quite a few articles. In fact, in one of the early Zagat reviews-they said that it was the best lamb curry in the last ten years.  I thoroughly enjoyed it myself (laughs).

There was the Kuku Paka that was a favourite as well. That’s chicken in coconut. One writer’s favourite was Prawns Upanga, which is prawns stuffed with garlic, parsley butter and chilli of course. It was baked, and finished off with passion fruit juice.

And one of the ten best soups that was mentioned in Western Living Magazine was Coconut Fish Soup.

Any dessert favourites? (smiles)

I used to do gulab jaman flambe. You remember?

Yes, of course! My favourite desserts were the chocolate mousse and mango cheese cake! Oh my God, Never had better, and the crust of the cheesecake was amazing!

Haha. Yes!

Running a restaurant I am sure can’t be easy. What were some secrets you pulled out, to bring in more regular clients?

Well, in 1980- February – my sales were down – so I was thinking about how to get more people in. And that’s how the samosa parties at the Kili were invented (smiles). People around the business areas would come in on Thursday nights- and then of course my wife Nargis would bring in her group from her work. And that’s how I survived the first February (smiles).

Nargis Aunty and Amyn Uncle 2

Amyn and his wife Nargis

I always try to describe to people how I felt like Kilimanjaro was not just a restaurant. There were so many different types of people that would come in. But they didn’t just come to eat.

I know what you mean. Well, first of all, I think that had a lot to do with the music . I enjoyed African music, middle eastern music. Indian classical, western classical, Indian Bollywood music. And of course the Beatles and the pop music here.

Because of this, I used to have jazz pianists playing at the restaurant, playing the jazz vibraphone-vibes. I used to have African drummers- you remember Kwasi and them? And there were steel drummers playing. We also had classical musicians there. In fact, on the opening and closing night of the Vancouver Opera, the performers used to come to my restaurant and sing.

So many times in the restaurant, you’d even find Irish music playing on St Patrick’s Day, bag pipes for Robby Burn’s night, and then of course, belly dancing.

Where did you get such an eclectic taste for music, do you think?

Well, my school upbringing involved us always listening and dancing to the Highland Scottish jig. I knew Scottish dance because where I went to school, the teachers were Scots.

We used to celebrate Robby Burns Night (smiles). And we had an Irish principal as well who insisted on St Patrick’s Day celebrations (laughs).

So it was all part and parcel of my upbringing which I brought to the Kilimanjaro. And then you know, talking to people in several languages at the same time- that helped too. (smiles). It made it so that all sorts of people came in.

Yeah, I think people felt that, that they were all welcome.

My philosophy was anyone who comes to my restaurant – they are all equal because they all came from unique experiences.

Rich or poor, everyone was treated well. There was a guy who would come in and he was on welfare, living off of welfare cheques. He was very interesting. He was a Vietnam War veteran and was completely down and out. But he used to come in every now and then to my bar, and order a beer. And people enjoyed talking to him, so they all bought him a beer (laughs).

Oh, smart guy (laughs).

There were quite a few customers like that who enjoyed the place. We had a patronage from all walks of life. Anyone could come in, and I made them feel welcome.

Many celebrities and well known faces would come in as well. I knew who they were, but I treated them like I would treat anybody else. And they liked it. They came into my restaurant incognito. If they wanted to see and be seen, they could go elsewhere, and they knew that.

Oh, you just said “incognito”! I learned that word because of an artist you introduced us to at the restaurant- Billy Einstein. We got signed copies of his album. And one of the songs on it was called Incognito.

steel drums

So many interesting talents were drawn to the restaurant. How did you go about choosing who would play there?

Well, a couple of them I brought in from the street.

I remember one in particular- Alpha Yaya Diallo. That was his name. He was from Cameroon. He came in and he saw the Kilimanjaro name so he started talking to me.  I asked him what he did, and he said, “I play music.”

So I said, well, “If you’d like to play at the restaurant, you are welcome to. I can’t pay you much, but I can give you food and some pocket money.”

So he started playing at the restaurant. Eventually, he made four or five albums or more. In fact, by the time I closed the restaurant, I said, “Alpha, do you want to play for my last night at the restaurant?”

And he said:, “Amyn, I made big!” (emphatically)

And I said, “You made big?”

And he said, “Yes, I’m going to Europe for a concert tour!”

No way! That’s amazing!

Yes (laughs). And then he said, “But I’m going to play for you. I’m not going to charge you anything.” And he added. “But my musicians-you give them a hundred dollars each.”

And of course, I did. That was the last night that he played for us. That was our last night at the restaurant- it was New Years Eve.

Apparently, Alpha went to Europe, and became extremely popular over there. His voice was that very West African flavour- like Salif Keita, you remember?

Yeah. I do. I love how the Kilimanjaro gave Alpha a place to showcase his music and get him heard. That’s amazing!

Well, he wasn’t the only one. There was another guy who came to the restaurant and he started playing for us. We had a very similar deal set up. His name was Wes Mackie. He was a blues singer and he started his performances at the restaurant. He then got more gigs. And finally, when I saw him last, he was charging I think up to  four thousand dollars a night!

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Photo by Tasleem Laila

Wow! That’s incredible.

Unfortunately, he passed away just recently. But yeah, he put out about three or four albums.

There were others too- Indian classical players. And then of course, the belly dancers.

I think the seed was planted for me to love dancing in large part because of you and Kilimanjaro. Hearing all that African music, and watching the belly dancers at the restaurant as I was growing up, got into my system.

How did you find the belly dancers? What made you decide to have them at the restaurant?

Well, initially, our Saturday nights were slowing down.

My business partner had seen Sarita, who later became one of our regular dancers, performing. And he told me to get in touch with her. So I did. I made a deal with her. That’s how the belly dancing started with us.

There were a few of them, I remember.

Yes, there was Sarita, Gail- Rahma, Xen , Farida, Joselyn. Some of them would have workshops nearby and their students would showcase what they learned at the restaurant. And then there were visiting musicians and dancers coming in from outside.

We used to have a belly dance night where about six or seven dancers would perform regularly. Everyone loved it. But I think most of all, I thoroughly enjoyed it (smiles).

I remember you getting up and dancing. 

Oh yeah! I enjoyed dancing, I enjoyed the music. And being in East Africa- I was in Dar Es Salaam, and in Mombasa- I was already exposed to this music. Mombasa specifically is very much an Arab town where you listen to this music every day. So going from neighbour to neighbour, you would hear anything from Indian music to Arab music to Western music over there (smiles).

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Photo by Tasleem Laila

Dance Me Free is about the power of dance and other arts to heal. How have music, dance, cooking, and other arts impacted your life in and out of the restaurant?

My music tended to dominate the restaurant. Basically, whatever mood hit me, I played that music. It could range from classical to African to the blues, to jazz, and some Bollywood. It was always something that was uplifting, an upbeat for me.

There was a professor of mine who once invited a bunch of his students to his place for lunch. And after lunch, he said, well guys, it’s time to lie down and listen to some music. So that’s how I got into Mozart and how my interest in classical music grew. I always associate music with Sunday lunches because of that.

Was it hard to make the decision to shut down the restaurant after so many years?

Well, in 1994, I had a heart attack and bypass surgery. And then I ran the restaurant for three more years, and decided to shut it down after that, and never went back.

But even after all that, depending upon the mood, or whatever I was going through, all that music I was telling you about- it was one of the best things to help me through various times of my life. I just played it and would drift off, especially when I was bed-ridden for a month or more recovering from some health issues. Eventually, all those aches and pains were gone.

Well, the music, the restaurant, the food, and your passion changed many lives, probably many more than you know.

Thank you. Well, writers liked me and we went for 20 years (smiles). I had a good run with it.

 

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