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  • Writer's picturePat Browne

The Punjas

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Family • Foodies • Blessed

“I stood in front of a bank machine in India and started to shake. Not that I couldn’t take money out for my holiday, but because I could. This is where I came from. When I was here, I had nothing. I was one of the street children. No education, no food, but there was hope.”

That was Aleem Punja’s father’s story. As a child he emigrated with his mother, first to Iringa in Tanzania, then as an adult with his wife, returned temporarily to India. They moved back to Africa, this time to Nairobi in Kenya (where their first child was born) before finally being accepted by Canada. Hope, optimism and a love of people is what powered the man called “Dadu or grandpa”.

It is also the “Immigrant Story”. He came to Canada, he worked hard, he built a life; first for himself and then for his family. His first job in Canada was with Grand and Toy here in Don Mills. His main career was with Health Canada. His children recount how he would head off to work every day with a massive lunch box so that he could share with his co-workers. Sharing and community were the foundation of the family they raised.

Aleem was born in Canada in Thorncliff Park where so many immigrant families get their start in Toronto. And like so many families who arrived in Canada, they moved from Thorncliff to Scarborough and then Markham. That’s where Aleem met Jamila. They are true childhood sweethearts. They met in grade 5, started to date in grade 9 and married after university.

Jamila and Aleem are committed to family and community. They have both chosen careers designed to help. Jamila is with the City of Toronto for Toronto Water working in Emergency Preparedness and Safety (want to know who was working in the background to make sure we had a steady supply of water during the last ice storm?). Aleem has spent his career in Children’s Welfare Services with the provincial government, looking after indigenous child welfare and adoption oversite.

It was the commitment to family that brought them back into the city. Their first home, the sprawling suburban dream with lots of space, garden and upkeep in Pickering, was just too far out of the city. Because of his father’s connection to the area, they had known about our neighbourhood from the beginning. Other friends were here, and both sets of in-laws were close by. So, after missing out on a couple of bidding wars, they found their “forever home” on Green Belt Drive.

“It felt right,” said Jamila. “I had spent my early childhood in the Victoria Park and Lawrence area before my family had moved to Markham.”

“We feel so privileged to live in this neighbourhood. It feels so ‘homey’, the people are amazing. We’ve made wonderful friends. Our children, Alaiyah and Raihan, are in a great school and have so many friends in the neighbourhood. We love the proximity to the city – we're only 15 minutes away from downtown and we can get anywhere else easily. We love the proximity to the ravine and park system. We love the multiculturalism of the entire Don Mills area. We want our children to know the love of family, but we also want them to be multicultural.”

It’s that celebration of culture that has led Aleem to his latest venture. “My brother has been on about starting a restaurant for a long time. I wasn’t really interested. I enjoy cooking for my family but wasn’t really interested in cooking for everyone. Jamila was not interested at all.”

Then COVID hit. “I’m still not sure about a restaurant, but as a way to spread good cheer, celebrate our culture and share it with the community, we started Dadu’s Kitchen as an homage to my father and his love of sharing food.”

“Actually, it was my niece that got us started. She developed the Instagram site and marketing plan for Dadu’s Kitchen. Her plan saw us sell out in less than 4 hours for our first effort. All we had to do was cook some of the East African/Indian street food my father grew up with. The ongoing response has been amazing”

“I’m completed changed,” says Jamila, the children are involved. “We love it. Alaiyah and Raihan are learning about their grandpa’s (and their) roots. We cook twenty dinners, once a week, for our friends and neighbours. Everyone is so enthusiastic. It adds to the wonderful feelings we have in this amazing community.”

Follow Dadu’s kitchen @dadus_homestylekitchen

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