Taste of Dublin: Mama Nagi
Mindi Keane, one of the winners of our Taste of Dublin competition and the owner and creative force behind Mama Nagi’s Indian chilli pastes, was born in Uganda and now lives in Knocklyon in Dublin.
Her ancestors were Sikhs from Amritsar in the Punjab region of India who had settled in Africa to work on the construction of the railways. But her family were forced to leave the country in 1972 when the Ugandan leader, Idi Amin, gave all Asians who were not Ugandan citizens – around 50,000 people – 90 days to leave. 30,000 Asians in Uganda who had British passports left and arrived in Britain penniless. Mindi explains what happened next.
We basically got chucked out of the country
“We ended up in a big refugee camp in Wales and had to build our lives up from there. We were quite a wealthy family back in Uganda but ended up with nothing but the clothes on our backs. The Ugandan authorities took everything from us.”
Mum spoke five languages but none of them were English!
“We moved around England a bit until we settled in the north-west. I ended up spending most of my life in Burnley in Lancashire. I was the youngest of 7 at the time in a family that grew to eight children. My parents split up and so my mother (the Mama Nagi that Mindi’s company is named after) was suddenly a single mother bringing up eight kids in a foreign country with hardly any money. She spoke five languages but none of them were English!” Fortunately, Mindi’s mother was a wonderful cook.
My mother’s cooking was always talked about
“Even to this day people come to the door and say ‘oh, Miss Nagi will make us some of that potato curry? Will you make us this or that?’ Where we moved to, we were the only Asians at the time. We used to have people calling round and Mum used to cook for them. We didn’t have any money but she’d always make them something.”
She could make a four course meal out of baked beans if that was all she had
“Meat was very rare. Growing up if we got chicken it was amazing so the majority of the food was lentil dahls or vegetarian dishes because you could bulk them up with potatoes and then chapattis. The girls are trained to cook in Indian households so that they can cook when they get married but since we had no father around we rebelled. We went down the English route and now we all have English (and Irish) partners instead of accepting arranged marriages.”
I used to help her make the dough for the chappatis
“I watched how she made the amazing meals she did and still does conjure up. It was a chore when I was younger, I wanted to be out playing with my friends, but now I’m a bit older I appreciate it more. And now I’m in Ireland I miss her cooking. When I go back she makes the meals I love so much and it’s usually the vegetarian ones.”
She came over here to Dublin and invited seventy people back to our house
“She came over here to Dublin a couple of years ago and we ended up up in a pub and she invited seventy people back to our house. Me and me Mum cooked for seventy people. Starters and everything. I was like ‘Mum, why on earth did you invite all these people back?’ and she said ‘well they seemed like such nice people.’ That’s what she’s like. Everyone was blown away by her generosity and kindness.”
I used to go over to England and bring back jars of her chilli paste in the car
“The Mama Nagi Hot Punjabi Chilli Paste is basically her paste but toned down to make it a little less hot. I used to go over on the ferry and bring back jars of her chilli paste back in the car. I’d bring it here and have it in the fridge and when I made dishes with it my friends would say ‘oh, you must do something with that’ but it wasn’t the time.”
Then one year she fell ill, had a stroke and we nearly lost her
“I went home to England and obviously I was there for a while until she got better. I didn’t have a job at the time and one day I just said to her ‘Mum, would you mind if tried selling some of your recipes?’ She said ‘of course not’ so I tried it to see if it would work.”
My husband tasted it and said ‘nobody’s going to eat that in Ireland it’s too hot’
“I started making samples of the Punjabi Paste in 2015 but quickly toned it down to suite Irish tastes. I started doing the Herbert Park market which was great because people there are plenty of foodies there who are happy to try something new. Someone there mentioned the 2-day SuperValu start-up course which I did and then I got a phone call asking me if I’d like to be on the Food Academy.”
SuperValu now stock the three Mama Nagi pastes in over 30 stores
“I’m now looking to scale up but I’m wary of expanding too fast. People have to know how to use the pastes, you have to educate them as they are more used to getting Indian dishes ready-made or as take-aways. That’s why I always do tastings in the stores so I can meet people and they can learn how to use the pastes.”
Taste of Dublin was a once in a lifetime opportunity
“For Bank of Ireland to support small producers in this way and give us that opportunity was amazing. I would never have been able to afford attending Taste on this scale without winning the competition. The sales were great but it was more about brand awareness. I reached customers I wouldn’t have normally done not only from Dublin but from all areas of Ireland.
All the hard work that you put into it is really worthwhile
“It was great to meet people and hear them tell me that they like the pastes and use them. It makes you feel that all the hard work 7 days a week that you put into it is really worthwhile. I got a lot of support from friends who came and manned the stand with me even some who came after work and helped out. That gave me time to interact with people, walk around and chat to other producers and chefs.”
I became a mother when I was 18
“I got pregnant at eighteen and gave birth to identical twin girls Vanessa and Katie. Like my mother, I was a single parent and had to bring up my daughters on my own. I moved over to Ireland when they were sixteen, and they did their Leaving Cert here before returning to Britain to go to universities in Huddersfield and Manchester. When I was growing up I didn’t appreciate my Indian heritage. I rebelled against it because of wanting to fit in with life in England but as you get older you come to appreciate who you are and your culture. When other children used to call my daughters ‘half caste’ in school, I used to tell them that they were special because they were half English and half Indian and to be proud of that mix.”
Taste of Dublin competition winners
As well as Mama Nagi’s, three other businesses won stands at Taste of Dublin – O’Brien’s Farmhouse Cheese, Flavour Safari and Cabot’s of Westport.