In September of 2021, Dana Ibrahim decided to film her grandmother doing something she loved -- cooking food in her Calgary home.
Little did they know at the time that project would become the first step in making Nana Yousif, now 83, a foodie sensation on social media, star of dozens of videos posted under the title of Nana's Kitchen.
The family team, assisted in filming by Dana's cousin Shima, have so far produced video segments that have drawn 560,000 followers on TikTok, 260,000 subscribers on YouTube, and 71,000 followers on Instagram.
One early segment on TikTok garnered an eye-popping 11.5 million views.
“We were very shocked,” said Ibrahim, 21, who recently graduated from university with a major in psychology and a double minor in business and entrepreneurship. “It happened overnight. It just blew up.”
Nana has lived in Calgary more than two decades. She fled with her family from Iraq as a refugee from her home near the border with Turkey, spending a couple years in Iran before migrating to Canada.
The videos are produced sporadically, mainly because – like many her age --Nana has some health issues and gets tired fairly easily. She speaks minimal English. So much of the sound on the videos is translated or overdubbed with commentary or music.
“Nowadays younger people don't know how to do many things like cook" said Nana in one segment. “It's nice for them to learn how to do these things.”
She continued: “Whoever ate my food always loved it a lot. Back in Iraq my children's friends would always call me and ask what food I was making that day, after they got back from school.”
Nana learned cooking when she was a teenager by watching others prepare food. Most of her recipes come from memory as she never wrote them down. The recipes are not strictly taken from Iraqi food tables but are rather a mixture of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, including Turkish, Persian and Arabic dishes.
“It's from everywhere basically,” said Ibrahim, recalling that the first video involved a stuffed zucchini dish. “Her story is rich and amazing.”
Ibrahim says Nana works quickly in her kitchen and it is sometimes a challenge just to keep up while filming all the steps.
Measurements can be approximate too, adds Ibrahim, as Nana does not stick to strict rules around things like whether to use a teaspoon or a tablespoon for a particular ingredient, preferring to prepare food "from the heart."
There are a broad variety of recipes that have been displayed on videos so far. They include simple dishes like a macaroni casserole, "delicious and easy bread," or the "best chicken kabobs ever." But more traditional fare like Turkish fried dough, okra stew called bamya and Iraqi hot sauces, stews and desserts are also included.
Asked if she has any favourites, Ibrahim replied: "I love all the videos equally."
As the editor and producer of the videos, Ibrahim thinks her grandmother's background and varied recipe offerings make the videos unique compared to other cooking shows.
While currently the family team is focused on trying to grow a following for the videos, Ibrahim does wonder if there could eventually be broader interest from a broadcaster in picking them up.
“It's very different from other content you see,” Ibrahim said. “I think it touches people's hearts. It touches people's emotions.”
Ibrahim says there is a need generally to capture the fascinating experiences and backgrounds of Canadian immigrants like her grandmother.
“It's so sad for me to know that when they pass on, their stories go with them.”
See Nana's Kitchen Instagram posts @nanas_lovely_kitchen: https://www.instagram.com/p/CcxzhLtLJ7n/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet. You can also look for Nana's Kitchen on YouTube.