If you dig Indian food, chances are you have made either Vij’s or Rangoli a destination spot as you travel into Vancouver, British Columbia. I have been an adamant fan of Vij’s ever since my first visit to Vancouver 11 years ago. I jumped at the chance last summer to meet Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner of the Indian restaurant hot spots, at Sur La Table.
As Seattle excitedly awaits the November 2012 opening of Shanik, a restaurant Dhalwala is heading up with her business partner Oguz Istif in South Lake Union, I started recounting my memorable afternoon with Dhalwala where she cooked us up a feast while mesmerizing the audience with the back story behind her and Vij, their restaurant ventures, her views on family, Indian cooking, the role of women, the affordability of food, and more.
I learned that even though the restaurant is named after her husband Vikram Vij and many customers see him as the face of Vij’s, Dhalwala is not the “take a back seat to your husband” in any way. In fact, Dhalwala is actually one of the key masterminds behind the menu and overseer of the kitchens at both Vij’s and its casual younger sibling restaurant Rangoli.
Did you know the kitchen of both restaurants comprises of an all-female staff? Ms. Dhalwala attests it is not intentional. She assures us it just turned out that way. Men go through the interview process, where she tells them straight-up about how the kitchen is run, what will fly, what won’t, and somehow the men just weed themselves out.
Like a true matriarch, Dhalwala proudly mentions how none of her kitchen staff are professionally trained, but what all of them bring with them is a healthy attitude and the history and folklore from growing up as 1st or 2nd generation Indians.
With a Masters degree in International Development, the American-raised Dhalwala worked for non-profits in Washington, DC. After marrying Vij, she moved to Vancouver, BC where he had just opened his first restaurant – a small and modest 12-seat eatery. Since she was waiting on her work visa, she would spend her days hanging out at the restaurant. One day, she started poking around the kitchen and noticed that the chai tea the restaurant served was not fresh. As a fledgling Indian restaurant, she knew the quality of the chai was important so she took it upon herself to rework the process and recipe for chai tea in the restaurant. And that was her foray into an unexpected and long journey to the restaurant business. And by the way, both restaurants still serve her rendition of the signature chai today.
Poised, funny, and with a no-nonsense down-to-earth way about her, I could see Dhalwala both addressing the United Nations and doing a stand-up comedy act. The theme of the class and her latest book was casual Indian cooking at home. While cooking up a cauliflower steak and a vegetable curry (all done al dente, which is one of the traits Vij’s and Rangoli share and can be a rarity at a lot of Indian restaurants), she shared stories of her childhood and her life with her husband and two children (her upcoming Seattle restaurant is Shanik, named after her youngest daughter). The two hours flew by as quickly as story-time when you were a kid.
Here is a sample of the nuggets she shared with the audience while multi-tasking between cooking, talking about her cookbook and life, and answering our questions:
1) In Indian folklore, the bright red-orange spice turmeric cures all. That is why you will see it in a lot of Indian dishes.
2) Dhalwala and Vij really do cook simply at home and with what they have. For instance, one night they cooked up cauliflower and served it with a baguette for dinner.
3) Since cow is sacred to Hindus, the two key meats eaten in Indian cuisine are chicken and goat.
4) Some of the recipes in her book call for sprouted lentils as they are easy to make and super healthy for you.
5) The couple has two daughters. She picks them up from school every day, where the first point of business is discussing what they want to eat for dinner that evening. She says planning a meal days in advance isn’t practical because you just don’t know what you will be craving on any particular day. Maybe it is unexpectedly windy one day and one of her daughters will be craving a hot stew, whereas another day both daughters are craving meat. Regardless of what they decide to cook, the whole family helps prepare the meal.
The couple purposefully moved to a neighborhood that is in close proximity to both conventional and ethnic markets so they can easily pick up ingredients for their spontaneous dinners.