Frances Bula header image 1

Damaged Vancouver seawalls will be a massive repair job, prompt re-think of how to deal with shores as tides and sea levels rise

January 11th, 2022 · No Comments

My first story of the new year. I hope it’s not going to be a year of just one disaster after another.

After a severe winter storm that crumbled portions of Stanley Park’s seawall and hurled logs and other debris across area beaches last week, the Vancouver Park Board says it has no idea how much time or money it will take to undertake repairs of long stretches of waterfront.

The damage from the king-tide surge that coincided with high winds last Friday is prompting the city’s park commissioners to consider what to prioritize as they expect a multimillion-dollar repair bill. Those choices include delaying or abandoning a planned restoration of the Jericho Pier on the Kitsilano shore, which had been closed already because of previous storm damage.

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Civic campaign 2022: Ken Sim speech at ABC party dinner Oct. 13

October 29th, 2021 · No Comments


 Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

180 Keefer St, Chinatown

Vancouver, BC V6A 1X4

I want to acknowledge that are on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples and I want to thank them for hosting us.

Thank you Elder Howard Grant for that wonderful welcome.

Floata restaurant for hosting such a wonderful dinner.

As a lot of you know, I am the son of immigrants

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A portrait of Philip Owen from the early years

October 1st, 2021 · No Comments

Former mayor Philip Owen died today. Many, many memories of him. Here’s a very early profile I did of him at the Vancouver Sun in 1996.

It’s close to midnight and, on the third floor at Vancouver city hall, the lighted windows are going dark, one by one. The man walking through the council offices turning out the lights and shutting the windows is Philip Owen. The mayor. Owen has gone through the stack of city reports coming up at next week’s council meeting. On each report, no matter how mundane — a lane closure, a copper tubing contract — there are notes, underlinings, highlighting, question marks.

Later, with the list of addresses of every city site mentioned, he makes a point that week of driving by to take a look at each one: the lane that is going to be closed, the house that is going to be demolished, the downtown block that is going to be rezoned.

Owen is getting ready to do the mayor’s monthly talk show in his office — an hour during which the general public is free to call in and complain about dog poop in the parks, motorcycle noise in the West End, and the city’s stupid new garbage fee. As he waits around in his TV make-up for the program to start, I ask how he likes the television format. He answers with boyish anxiety: “Well, you’ll see how it is. But with you here tonight, maybe someone will call in and I’ll goof.”

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As government money for social housing climbs, communities are in debates as they see proposals for new projects of a type they’ve never had before

May 31st, 2021 · No Comments

My story in the Globe is here and also in text below. I’m also appending below the police statistics I got on calls to addresses of all the supportive-housing projects built since 2010.

B.C. Housing is proposing a 12-storey building with 140 studio apartments geared for very low-income singles at a key intersection next to the new Arbutus SkyTrain station.

It has been 9 years since any social housing was built in Kitsilano, a Vancouver neighbourhood once known for its counterculture leanings that has since become an increasingly high-end enclave of extensively renovated older homes.

The Arbutus Co-op, a multiunit high-rise, and the Alumnae Manor, a seniors’ housing project, went up in 2002 in the last dribble of subsidized housing built in the area. Except for one project from 1991 and another in 2012, the rest of the subsidized housing in the area is mostly mixed-income, low-rise co-ops or seniors’ housing from the 1960s through to the 80s.

So a recent proposal from B.C. Housing comes as a wake-up call for the Kitsilano community – announced in February, the plan calls for a 12-storey building with 140 studio apartments geared for very low-income singles at a key intersection next to the new Arbutus SkyTrain station – the size and type of building that has not been seen in Vancouver beyond the Downtown Eastside.


The lack of details around the proposal has left current residents trying to figure out what the plan means for their neighbourhood – some are concerned, while others welcome it as a solution to the city’s ongoing problems with homelessness and lack of affordable housing.

Such divisions are likely to continue as the federal government, province and municipalities push to tackle these issues after many years where little was done to address the growing housing crisis in much of the country.

Not only is the pace of social-housing funding increasing from all three levels of government, but the flood of new initiatives has resulted in buildings being proposed in neighbourhoods that have not seen low-cost housing projects in decades.

Progress on city’s pledge to build much-needed social housing in Vancouver remains stalled

Vancouver’s affordable housing announcements remain unfulfilled years later

Many of the new proposals are also specifically for supportive housing, not just affordable units. Supportive housing encompasses projects designed to house those with the lowest incomes, with assistance provided for residents on site – ranging from meal programs and housekeeping to mental-health and addiction services.

In addition to the west-end Kitsilano proposal, the February B.C. Housing announcement included another, similar supportive-housing project in east Vancouver at King Edward Avenue and Knight Street.

In Kitsilano, one neighbourhood group, called Parents for Thoughtful City Planning, says their research unearthed some worst-case scenarios, such as a news account of a social-housing resident in Victoria who had guns and machetes in his room; the raft of police calls at the 147-unit Marguerite Ford building in the Olympic Village when it first opened in 2013; and ongoing complaints from nearby condo residents about garbage, drug paraphernalia and low-level crime.

“We’re opposed to more of the same,” group member Charlene Kettlewell said as she relayed the list. She and other group members, many of them connected to the private St. Augustine elementary Catholic school across the street from the proposed housing project, are concerned about adding more buildings to the area that they say will be too big, filled with too many residents and only increase problems in the neighbourhood.

But Lindsey Murphy, who lives a few blocks away from Ms. Kettlewell in a co-op with her children, says the social-housing buildings she’s familiar with are working well – a hopeful sign, she notes.

“I don’t think the Marguerite Ford is an accurate comparison,” she says. “It was built before [B.C. Housing] used a vulnerability-assessment tool to assess what residents need.”

Ms. Murphy points to a different project, the Kettle on Burrard – which provides housing and support services for adult and youth tenants at risk of homelessness – as a successful example resulting from the careful assessment of what residents might require to be fully supported in their new home.

Ms. Murphy and other supporters have formed their own group, Kitsilano for Inclusivity, and say it’s time for the neighbourhood to do its part in housing the city’s poorest residents.

“I understand the hesitancy and the fear,” she says. “A lot of it has to do with the stigmas – we see this every time one of these buildings is proposed. By and large, a lot of things have been proven not to be true.”

Ms. Murphy, who is president of her housing co-op and a member of the Canadian Housing Renewal Association’s tenant leadership group, has a lot of familiarity with the issues. Many other local residents don’t – something that housing operators acknowledge.

“I think it’s challenging in Vancouver right now because supportive-housing buildings are going into neighbourhoods where they haven’t been before,” says Tanya Fader, who oversees the management of hundreds of apartments for the non-profit PHS Community Services Society in 20 buildings throughout the region.

Newer developments result in entire neighbourhoods of people trying to understand how social-housing residents are selected, what kinds of supports they receive, how housing operators will connect with the community and many other related questions.

They don’t get always get the answers they’re seeking out, however.

Residents who live near the planned Arbutus project who are concerned about its size say it’s been frustrating that B.C. Housing has compared the project in community meetings with a three-storey building – an example that they say does not seem like what is actually being proposed. As well, early efforts at public engagement didn’t include the St. Augustine school across the street because TransLink mistakenly sent an email regarding the outreach to a school with the same name in Newfoundland.

Residents who have concerns about the project say they don’t know at this point how new residents will be chosen for the building, or any details about the vulnerability assessment tool (VAT) that has been used by B.C. Housing and non-profit housing providers since 2014.

The assessment, which B.C. imported from Seattle, aims to provide a picture for housing providers about what kind of support future residents might need, from basic survival skills to mental-health counselling. That allows building managers to decide how many and what type of staff will be needed, and to help ensure of a mix of residents.

“We do want to achieve a balance. That’s the key to success,” said Damian Murphy, the manager of Kettle on Burrard, one of the housing projects managed by the Kettle Society, which provides community services and advocacy to empower those living with mental illness, addiction, poverty and homelessness (the organization is not being considered as an operator for the Arbutus project).

The Kettle building is one of 14 supportive-housing projects constructed during a big push from the previous B.C. Liberal government, which came along with a memorandum of agreement that included two formulas about who should get one of the 1,400 apartments that were created.

One formula outlined that 50 per cent of people offered such housing should be those truly living on the street, 30 per cent should be those who were precariously housed (sleeping on a sofa at a friend’s, for example) and 20 per cent should be people at risk of losing their housing through situations such as renovictions or rent increases.

The second formula also spelled out that 50 per cent of the future residents in a social-housing building should be low-needs, 40 per cent medium-needs and only 10 per cent high-needs.

“Definitely the size of the building does play a role, but it depends on how it is managed,” Mr. Murphy said. “Some operators get bids because their budget is low – they only have two staff altogether. That’s not enough.”

At the Kettle on Burrard, there are 11 permanent staff and nine relief workers, plus a maintenance team. Because it’s a 24/7 operation, that means there are typically two people on shift at a time, with visiting specialists coming in for specific activities and services at various points.

Ms. Fader said PHS uses the same approach and has similar staffing levels.

“I review every referral that comes through and discuss with the managers, ‘Where is this person going to be the most set up for success?’ We’re always trying to figure out the balance.”

Too many high-needs residents can overwhelm staff. People who are prone to starting fires or to hoarding need to be in concrete buildings, Ms. Fader explained. Some people need to be near the mental-health team they’re already connected to.

But nervous resident groups sometimes default to the bits of data occasionally provided by police about the number of police calls to the most high-profile buildings.

Vancouver police records requested by The Globe and Mail show that the range of calls to the city’s 14 supportive-housing buildings ranged in 2020 from a low of four calls at the Broadway Youth Resources tower at Fraser and Broadway Streets, to 789 calls at the Alexander Street community housing tower at 111 Princess St., managed by PHS. The Kettle on Burrard had 90 calls, the McLaren Housing Society building on Howe Street had 95, while The Budzy, also on Princess Street, had 305.

Among the city’s temporary modular housing projects, which typically have around 40 units, the police calls in 2020 ranged from 333 to the project near the Olympic Village station to eight at a cluster on Heather Street in the Marpole area.

But as housing advocates point out, such statistics are not an accurate measure, since the call volume can stem from anything such as irate neighbours phoning in, a resident who is obsessively calling 911 or issues on the street nearby.

Meanwhile, there is no available data on non-profit agencies’ track record in managing such housing projects. Nor is there precise information on how calls to police might be a reflection of an agency’s willingness – or not – to take on difficult residents who may have been kicked out of other places. Some PHS buildings will have more challenging residents, Ms. Fader said, because the organization does not evict people who are likely to end up on the street.

Residents who live near existing supportive or transitional housing say they find it difficult to assess what issues might be connected to already existing problems in their neighbourhoods, and what might be related to the realities of those with high needs living in social housing.

Non-profit housing managers emphasize that neighbourhood concerns often go down when residents are able to connect with the group that will be running the building. So far, B.C. Housing has not announced which non-profit organizations will manage the two new proposed supportive-housing towers. When that information is made public and the project progresses, residents will have an opportunity to engage with those organizations, Ms. Fader explained.

“When we were opening places in False Creek, there were a lot of concerned seniors,” Ms. Fader recalled. “Once we told them how involved our staff were, you could see the weight roll off their shoulders.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the last social housing was built 19 years ago. It was nine years ago. Also, it was TransLink that sent an email to the wrong neighbourhood school, not the city.

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Many social-housing announcements and approvals in Vancouver, not so much getting built

May 28th, 2021 · No Comments

I got an email from someone back in January with a list of social-housing projects that had been announced going back a few years, asking what had happened. At first, I thought it might be a problem with BC Housing funding and rules. That probably plays a part, but the bigger issue turned out to be the city’s increasingly slow planning and permitting processes, as I found when I started compiling all the statistics.



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Building an infill/laneway, Part 4: Do you have the stamina, interest, location to make this doable?

February 17th, 2021 · No Comments

My neighbour spent $40,000 going down the road to building an infill house on his lot, with a plan almost identical to ours. He actually started a little before I did, also hoping for a place for their son, his wife and toddler.

But he gave up after a couple of years into the same process I went through. He and his wife sold at the top of the market to what turned out to be an investor buyer, and their young relatives, who had camped at the house with them for a while, moved somewhere else in the city.

We kept going because we felt we had no options. And, as well, I had prepared myself and everyone else at the beginning: “Be patient,” I was warned. “Anything can happen. There will be twists and turns.”

That’s the kind of thing anyone is going to have to weigh as they contemplate whether to house a whole other family on their existing lot, along with many other factors.

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Building an infill/laneway, Part 3: The part where I pay all the bills and the construction happens

February 17th, 2021 · No Comments

The Bula laneway house started to take shape on March 25, 2020.

Here is my unsolicited advice to those who build infills and laneway houses for us amateur developers.

There should be prenatal classes before construction starts.

A class where someone teaches you how to keep breathing deeply and staying calm when the budget-prep person at your builder tells you your project will now cost $100,000 or so more than you thought. Or when drugs are an acceptable option in the event that you get called out into the backyard to hear the construction supervisor say they’ll have to chop down a favourite tree to put in some new piece of required-by-the-city-for-the-first-time-ever plumbing infrastructure that will, by the way, cost an additional $10,000.

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Building a laneway/infill in Vancouver, Part 2: Two years of tussles over buildable space, sidewalks, trees, much more

February 4th, 2021 · No Comments

Part 2 of the series, the link and the text below. (Sorry no pix because I can only reprint what belongs to me, not the Globe.)

The low point in Phase 2 of the Ironman slog to build our infill house for my husband’s daughter and her family came when my patient architect let me know the people at city hall were suggesting we might have to decommission our existing basement suite.

That suite, where daughter No. 2 was living, would need to have the stove removed and stairs to the main floor put back in if we wanted to avoid the city requiring us to build in two enclosed parking spaces into the ground floor of the laneway.

That seemed like a “both roads lead to hell” scenario. One: Keep basement suite, provide housing for extra car, create architectural abomination, add costs. Two: Keep laneway house as non-grotesque building, lose suite, force daughter two to move to have some privacy, lose rent money.

That suggestion quietly floated away after a few weeks.

But it was one of several stomach-lurching dips in the roller coaster that we, inexperienced homeowners, went through during the year-long phase that comes before you ever apply for your development and building permits. It’s a year of long negotiations that precedes the second nearly-year-long wait between official application and actual granting of permits.

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Building an infill/laneway in Vancouver, Part I: The city decides to change the rules midway

February 4th, 2021 · No Comments

Hi all

I’ve kicked off 2021 by writing for the Globe and Mail about the five-year process of building my infill (technical term) or laneway, as many people know them.

Here’s Part 1, linked and with the text below.

By the time Ariel and Brad moved in last October, there were three children.

It was almost five years to the day after I wrote the first $10,000 cheque. Four-plus years of going through city hall hoops and hurdles, sliding down the snake and going back up the ladder, and then eight months of construction. And now the former toddler was in Grade 2, heading off to school with a backpack.

People like my husband and I are increasingly common in Canada’s expensive cities: rookie private developers who don’t really have a clue about what we’re doing, thrust into a strange new world of construction management as we try to find new housing in the city for children, parents or even ourselves.


City politicians are encouraging that more and more in high-cost cities, campaigning on promises of allowing more leeway for people who own single-family homes to add basement suites and laneway houses. In some cases, they’re encouraging owners to demolish the old place and build a duplex, a fourplex or even, in Vancouver, a sixplex – if Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s latest initiative ever gets traction.

There’s a reason for this sea change from what it was 30 years ago, when basement suites were controversial. In a city with a housing shortage and constant pressure to create more, it’s attractive for politicians to encourage homeowners to become the developers themselves instead of having the pros do it. We amateurs can make a personal plea to have others on the block support their development application.

So I’m here to tell you what that is like exactly or, at least, what it was like from our end of the telescope.

I’m sure that people on the other end – experienced builders or experienced city-hall building-permit issuers – will roll their eyes at parts of my tale. “How could she not know that!,” they’ll say to themselves. But that’s the point.

We didn’t always know and we often couldn’t have any clue what was going to happen next, because it was our first, and likely only time, through the process. We don’t get to learn from project to project, the way professional builders do.

Things that might seem completely obvious to someone used to reading plans or negotiating construction budgets or complying with city processes were not at all obvious to us. (“Oh, this line here is a property line on the plan? I didn’t know that,” is just one of the many dippy things I said at various points.)

So this story isn’t just for you future rookies to educate yourselves before you jump off that cliff. It’s also for the people who are frustrated with us at the other end, because you have to deal with us when we’re confused and sometimes angry and sometimes clueless.

I’ll kill some of the suspense here and say that, in the end, we have a completely lovely house and that we think our construction manager was a hero. But…

So here is how it started.

When my husband’s daughter and her family moved back to Vancouver, after eight years away in the east, it didn’t take long for us to register the fact that it was going to be difficult for them to buy anything to live in. They were making more than the region’s median income between them as swim coaches, but that wasn’t enough.

Because I’ve worked as a reporter covering Vancouver city hall for more than two decades, I’d covered the city’s many efforts to find ways to create more housing. The laneway house program had officially kicked off in 2009, so I thought I knew the concept.

We had a special reason to be interested in laneway houses, because of the particular zone that our house is in. Most people who want to build laneway houses in Vancouver are restricted to about 750 square feet for a standard 33-foot-by-120 foot-lot. But our 1909 house is in an older neighbourhood of Vancouver, Mount Pleasant, where the zoning is different from the standard residential one that covers most of the city. It is one of several older neighbourhoods that ring the downtown where there are a fair number of early-20th-century houses.

In an effort to prevent the demolition of the older Craftsmans, Edwardians and occasional Victorians, the city started a program in the 1980s that would allow owners to add fairly large infill houses in return for an agreement to preserve the older house. It had been quite successful in Kitsilano, where mini-me houses sprouted in side and backyards. It was less common where we were.

But, as the price of housing started going up precipitously, a few owners in our area started using that program, often called “heritage light” or a Heritage Revitalization Agreement. We discovered we appeared to be eligible and that we could build a house of 950 square feet or more.

So I wrote the cheque in October, 2015 to a company called Smallworks, whose owner, Jake Fry, pioneered laneway housing in Vancouver. We signed a design-build contract for what stuck in my mind as “a laneway house that will cost $350,000,” and we set off.

The first thing you learn is that it takes almost a year of having your builder/architect negotiate with the city before you even apply for a development permit.

In the early batch of almost 300 e-mails that are in my files, we hacked our way laboriously through the dense undergrowth of early planning. We had the site meeting (in November), then some conferencing with the-then company architect over what his early conversations with city planners had established about how much square footage we would be allowed (December), then more meetings to come up with a preliminary design (January), then the developed design (February) and then the updated floor plan (March).

But things slowly ground to a halt at the city. At first, it seemed like just a small glitch; a new rule requiring 12-feet of clearance from main house to side property line. That kind of clearance was something that didn’t exist anywhere in the neighbourhood I lived in, because the big, old houses were built so close together.

Others in my neighbourhood were running into the same problem. “We also were broadsided by this reversal in city policy,” was one post on the Facebook group from “Rob” in our area. “I was quite far along on an infill proposal until I recently met with a city planning staff and got shot down.”

But, it turned out, that wasn’t the worst. Soon, the news started trickling out that some senior planner at the city thought there were too many of these HRA infills starting to pop up. The rules were too variable. Or something.

By late 2016, we were at a complete standstill. “Any clue for us what is going on?” was the subject line on Dec. 16.

This is the first of a four-part series.

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I did a strange thing this Christmas — I went all out on the Christmas-card thing

December 19th, 2020 · No Comments

A column I wrote for the Globe’s Amplify newsletter

The Christmas-card ritual was a fixture in my mother’s life.

She had special books with rows and columns, so she could track the name of each person who had been sent a card, which of them had sent her one back the previous year and who perhaps needed to be struck from next year’s to-do list.

She wasn’t a huge Christmas traditionalist. She let us know every year how much she hated shopping for presents because she was bad at it. She ditched real trees when I was still in elementary school, acquiring one of the earliest plastic trees manufactured, a hideous stick-like contraption. In the years of experimental vegetarianism, she did not cook a turkey.

But the cards were sacrosanct.

In return, our homes in Regina, then North Vancouver, received cascades of mail every Christmas when I was a child, cards that became part of the decorations as they were hung along strings tacked to the walls. Sometimes we’d run out of wall.

I didn’t mean to abandon the tradition as an adult, but I was always, you know, sooooo busy with my urban Vancouver life. I had my own traditions: making my own gingerbread houses for anywhere up to 12 kids, tree-decorating parties, baking endless rounds of cookies that filled tins stacked all over the floor.

I tried many years to keep up the card tradition. I’d buy whole boxes, West Coast-themed when I could find them, as well as occasional $7-apiece craft-store cards. I’d mean to send them. But, oh dear, the time to write all those quick but meaningful notes. Finding addresses. The frigging post-code hunt. Stamps. Geo-locating mailboxes.

It’s all so different in this (use preferred cliché word here) year.

There’s so much time that I never knew I had, now that there are no coffees, lunches, dinners, rambling shopping expeditions, unrestricted gym visits, music festivals, trips to non-B.C. destinations.

I’ve undertaken a lot of unexpected activities as a result.

Done almost three-dozen jigsaw puzzles. Taken up South Asian cooking. Re-watched Grey’s Anatomy. Learned to program my car clock. Knit a few sweaters.

And then, suddenly, two weeks ago, as I kicked into the whole Christmas thing way earlier than usual, Christmas cards entered my brain’s orbit.

Oh, I thought. I’ll send off a few this year. As I started to get into a rhythm, the list expanded. I’m up to 81 names now.

Not all have gone out yet because it turns out it’s a lot of work to crank up the old Christmas-card machine.

I had to find my last extant address book, buried in the cubbyhole reserved for old daybooks. Then it turned out that many of the addresses I had were years out of date or not there at all.

Finding addresses became a major project requiring all my investigative-journalism skills, since I wanted to avoid asking people directly. I did internet searches, hunted through social-media channels for ancient dinner invitations, drove past houses to get street addresses, checked out entry panels for apartment numbers, looked on Google Maps. In extreme cases, I paid the $10 fee to search their names on the government’s land-titles site.

Then I needed to find just the right cards – not some cheesy dollar-store boxes. No, they had to be original, something that conveyed the essence of me and/or the West Coast. As well, because I have a lot of Jewish friends (a couple of stints on a kibbutz in Israel has left me a legacy of a wide network of them in the U.S.) and for the non-Christians and co-atheists, I needed a wide selection ranging from traditionally Christian to cards with nothing but embossed snowflakes or Christmas fishes (see above pic). So I’ve been discovering the city anew by checking out various shops – which, because they’re small and arty, usually have no one in them but me, so safe!

And, finally, the stamps. As with so much else in the pandemic, what should have been a relatively simple task turned out, again, to require cunning or patience. It appears many others have had the same impulse as me. So there are lineups at every post office, even in supposedly empty neighbourhoods. And the offices are selling out of stamps. Not just Christmas stamps. All stamps.

And why am I doing it? Why not just an email? Or phone? I ask myself that. Is it just that, since we’re reliving the 1950s anyway these days (all meals at home on a menu in rotation, evenings spent playing board and card games, travel restricted to camping locally), why not throw this in too?

Maybe, a little. But there’s something more.

I think of the pleasure of the person getting the card.

For once, not a bill or a flyer from the local real-estate agent or newsletter from a politician or a plea from a charity.

Instead, a direct communication in old-fashioned cursive that my friends can hold in their hands, something that represents a distinct effort to do more than send a quickie “Hey, how’s life in the pandemic?” email. But not anything too elaborate.

Just a little note with a beautiful piece of mini-art that sends the message, “I think of you still. You’re part of my life in this very strange time.”

What else we’re thinking about:

Once my Christmas-card rampage is over, I’ll be looking for more time-consuming activities to use up my many spare hours. So far, I’ve been cruising the internet looking for ever-more complicated South Asian, Thai or Korean recipes to make. An hour to toast and grind spices and then make a curry? No problem. That has led me to books like Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. But I’m looking for more, so this is what’s on my Christmas list from 2020′s crop of interesting new cookbooks: Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves (Sri Lankan) by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama or In Bibi’s Kitchen (East African) by Hawa Hassan.


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