“I have Indian cooking in my fingers and all my senses,” said Meeru Dhalwala, who with her husband, Vikram Vij, has written two cookbooks: “Vij’s: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine” and “Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey,” while also working with him in their two Vancouver restaurants, Vij’s and Rangoli.
“I come up with recipes for new menus by closing my eyes and imagining the color that attracts me for that phase,” said Dhalwala. “I can smell a curry and tell you if it will be good or not. People tell me it’s not possible, but I can smell salt in the curry—well, if there’s not enough. I cultivated this talent; I learned a lot from my mom’s cooking without even realizing it.”
“I think of my parent’s home in the U.S. as my culinary home,” said Dhalwala. “That’s where my mom cooked, roasted spices, and filled the house with smells that stuck to my hair and clothes—which, as a teenager, I thought was mortifying. India is my ancestral culinary home, and Canada is my adopted culinary home. In the same way that my mom was an immigrant in the US and created a culinary home for me, I am an immigrant in Canada, creating my daughters’ culinary home.”
Dhalwala began her kitchen training early. “I was 10 years-old when I learned to make chai for my mom’s afternoon tea. The first few times, she said I let her chai get too cold, so the fourth or fifth time, I put the teabag in the kettle of boiling water and let it boil and boil. I got a stool to get closer to the kettle and the counter, which I thought would shorten the travel time from kettle to cup. I got a bit too close and the water was so hot that when I poured it, the cup exploded and all the boiling water got on my stomach. I still have the scars on my stomach from that burn.”
“Chai is tea, it isn’t supposed to be complicated,” Dhalwala explained, calling the two predominant methods of making it “city chai” and “country chai.” City chai uses one teabag per cup, is mildly spiced, mostly water with a bit of milk. Country chai is what the Pacific Northwest chai latte craze is all about. My kitchen staff is from various villages throughout the Punjab. They drink country chai. For about 10 people they use almost a gallon of milk, 3-4 teabags, sugar, very little water, and one or two spices (normally fennel, but in the winters they will add ginger, black cardamom or Indian Thyme for “cold prevention”). At home or at work, we never make chai with cloves, anise or cinnamon. The one thing that both city and country chai has in common is it must be hot, hot, hot.”
In her “adopted culinary home” Dhalwala has become a passionate advocate of locally grown food. Recently elected to the Board of Directors of the Vancouver Farmers Markets, Dhalwala said, “I go local when it makes sense and I buy from elsewhere when it makes sense. I use local and sustainable seafood, and local meats and produce, while asking myself, what non-local foods are crucial for me and which ones can I do without? Indian Basmati rice is far superior to US long grain, so I buy that. Spices, naturally, come from India. But I buy Canadian flour. I buy BC apples, peaches, apricots, kale, potatoes, carrots, but I’ll buy organic, fair-trade mangoes (an all-time Indian favorite) from Haiti, Mexico or Peru. The mangoes are a treat for my family whereas we can pig out on the local apples.”
Dhalwala said she doesn’t just support her local farmers.
“I come from a developing country,” said Dhalwala. “I support sustainable farmers all over the world. What I try not to support is large-scale, non-sustainable, mono-agriculture or large corporations that buy up produce from small farmers while the farmers themselves can’t afford their own produce.”
Believing that farmers’ markets should be accessible to all income levels, Dhalwala concluded, “Staying healthy on local potatoes, cabbage, carrots, kale, or beets isn’t as expensive as we may think… By inexpensive, I mean it’s comparable in cost to eating at a fast food place.”
Meeru Dhalwala from Viji’s and Rangoli restaurants in Vancouver, B.C. will talk about food and chai. Join her to hear about memories from her mother’s Indian kitchen at Elliott Bay Book Company on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 – 10th Ave. Call (206) 624-6600 or visit: www.elliottbaybook.com for more information.