Saturday, 10 September 2016

I recently read an article, 50 of the World's Best Breakfasts, and was pretty pleased to find my all-time favourite, the Full English, at the top of the list. Let's face it, there is nothing like a greasy fry-up of eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, baked beans, black pudding, fried bread and a cup of strong, hot, sweet builders' tea to start the day. Except, of course, for the impending heart attack that will probably show up shortly after. But as a broke graduate student, it couldn't be beaten for value. 

Sadly, however much I wanted to, there was no way my grad student diet could continue without some serious health issues, so I had to reluctantly grow up, and make those changes that would led to a reasonably healthier lifestyle. One of these changes was cooking at home more often. Of course, this led to my current food writing career which has taken off a lot more than I could have hoped for, and it was that one small step that helped me along the way.

Breakfasts have always been an important tradition in Indian culture and families. Since I was little, as far back as I can remember, every morning has started with a hot breakfast. We started school at 9 AM, and my mom had to leave for work at 8 in the morning. So a lot of the breakfasts we had were either prepped late in the evening, or I would hear my mom up at 5 AM in the kitchen, making sure the family was going to be fed. A hot breakfast usually meant a pretty elaborate set up. Dosa batter was ground and fermented overnight, with chutneys and condiments already made. A hot potato bhaji curry would be made in the morning, simmering on the gas stove next to my mom who would be frying up hot, crispy dosas. Once we'd grumbled our way out of bed, we would get dressed in our school uniforms, make sure our backpacks were packed and then sit down for breakfast. The dosas, or rotis, or hot pressed sandwiches would come flying out at us, and we gobbled as much as we could before racing out of the door behind our mom to get to school on time.

The breakfast habit continued until just after college, but when I left home for university, time started getting more fluid, as classes and socialising cut into food time. I fell off the habit of eating a healthy breakfast, instead, relying on coffee and the odd breakfast sandwich to keep me going. And once I got to grad school, apart from those occasional full Englishes, breakfast completely fell off the radar.

This continued – until I had my first baby. My child is a morning child. A lark! What did I do to deserve this?

Breakfast was back on the menu, especially considering the fact that it became Adz's main meal. She is a hearty breakfast eater. At any given point, she can easily chow down Weetabix with berries or bananas, buttered and jammy toast, giant bowlfuls of porridge with more fruit and honey and raisins, and pretty much anything else that she has going on around. Adz and her dad have special breakfast days, where they make waffles, pancakes or the aforementioned full English breakfasts. I join them when I can drag myself out of bed, but brunches in the house are now pretty legendary too, give or take a couple mimosas.

Along with a healthy breakfast, Kay and I have also got into the habit of taking a quick multi-vitamin to keep our systems healthy. Vitamins and I have had a love-hate relationship for a while – have you ever had a spoonful of cod-liver oil shoved down your throat as a kid? – but when it comes to our busy family and work lives, a multivitamin can become a way to support our daily health goals. For example, according to a recent survey, did you know that almost one third (31%) of Canadians, find it hard to find time in the day for a workout or to cook healthy meals? Another finding from the same survey found that 43% of Canadians fall out of step with healthy habits during the holidays and 40% reckon that any healthy habits they inculcate fall by the wayside during vacations. This is particularly true during school vacations for my own family, as mealtimes turn erratic and the day is filled with snacks and not a regular meal.

Summer is a special time for us in the house, as my mom comes over to visit us in Canada. Mom, despite being retired, is a force of nature when it comes to getting us all ship-shape and organised. Before I know it, my laundry has been folded, my house is top visiting shape, and all meals are planned with my vegetarian husband and daughter in mind. Mom, like I mentioned above, is a big believer in healthy eating and big breakfasts, with the occasional cheat treat in between. Being used to a fixed sunrise, she gets a bit confused, as we joke, and wakes up every morning to make us a hot, Indian-style breakfast. Whether it is upma or savoury vermicelli, or her famous potato bhaji with either rotis, dosas, or even stuffed into bread rolls like vada pav, we enjoy her visits and the mama-style breakfasts she makes for us every morning.

As a food writer, especially when mama isn't around, my eating schedule can be pretty erratic. Sometimes I have breakfast for dinner, because I am trying to catch the last of the evening light to take pictures, or if I am testing recipes, I pretty much eat the same dish a few times in a row.

While I definitely try and make sure the family has a balanced meal, my diet doesn't always align their way. Taking multivitamins has thus become a bit of a necessity to keep me going and healthy and in good condition to keep writing about food now and in the future. It's the small steps that keep us going, after all.

Mom's Famous Potato Bhaji  
This bhaji is an all-time favourite in the house. A spicy concoction of potatoes, onions, tomatoes and gentle spices. It can be eaten not just with a dosa, but also with chapatis/ rotis, puris, stuffed into bread or with plain rice and yogurt.It can very easily be made in advance, and reheated in the morning, making for a quick and easy breakfast to go.

(Printable Recipe)

2 tablespoons oil
1 sprig of curry leaves, about 4 - 5 leaves
1/2 teaspoon of black or brown mustard seeds
1 onion, diced
1 tomato, diced
1 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
1 green bird's eye chili pepper, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 large potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and diced
Hot water, just enough to cover the potatoes
Salt to taste

In a deep pan, heat the oil, then toss in the mustard seeds and curry leaves until the seeds splutter (about 10 - 20 seconds).

Add the onion, and sauté for 4 minutes or until it softens, then the ginger and chilly, and fry for another minute.

Add the tomato and the turmeric, and cook until the tomato is soft, about 5 -6 minutes.

Stir in the potatoes, and toss them in the pan to coat them with the masala.

Add enough water to the pan to just cover the potatoes, and simmer until the potatoes are soft. Season with the salt.

Roughly mash the potatoes, leaving chunks intact. Stir together and check seasoning, adjusting if necessary.

Serve with dosas, chutney, rice, chapathi, or just as a side dish.

Disclosure: I was compensated by Centrum Multivitamins for this post. As usual, all opinions, writing and the recipe are my own. For more information on why multivitamins matter, please check out 'Why Multivitamins Matter'.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Photo used with thanks to Sean Neild

Chef Vikram Vij, patron of Vancouver's famous Vij's Restaurant, Rangoli and Railway Express, and I share a fascination with Indian railways and their ubiquitous blue and red trains. Mine was honed through years of travelling around India with my family, and my own adventures on the trains from Delhi to South India. Vikram's, on the other hand, was all about the food.

"Were the pedhas worth it?" I asked him, after he recounts a particularly hilarious train story. "Yeah" he says, laughing, "but if I had missed that train, I would have lost everything, so maybe I need to rethink that answer". Vikram was travelling from Mathura to Bombay, and decided, underestimating the stop times on the train, to head to a nearby pedha shop. Pedhas, for the uninitiated, are deliciously milky, soft, fudgey Indian sweets that melt in your mouth. He got his pedhas, but as he approached the train station, realised that his train was pulling away from the station. As he recounts, "I ran, so hard, yelling, and finally managed to jump on to the last carriage of the train, where I waited till we got to the nest stop, so I could get to my seat". This story is familiar to a lot of us Indians, who love our railway food and drinks. From banana podis when approaching the Konkan coast, to vada pav in Mumbai, hot chai and lassis everywhere, everyone has a story about a near missed train incident. But in the end, the pedhas or the bhajiyas or the vadas are always worth it.

Vikram Vij is definitely a big personality - "look at me, is there anything low-fat about this?". I met him for the first time at the Taste Canada awards in September last year, where he hosted the show. We had quite a bit in common, both immigrants and both determined to raise the profile of Indian food, beyond butter chicken, in Canada. On the surface, he is a humble, self-effacing person, but dig deeper and you'll find a determined, extremely confident man with a strong sense of family, self and identity. We met again when he was NAIT's Hokanson Chef in Residence and unlike most of the chefs before him, he was out in the dining room, meeting and welcoming people, his loud booming laugh very much in evidence, as he greeted everyone with his trademark, 'namaste'. 

Ernest's dining room at NAIT was dressed up like the set of a Bollywood movie, all sparkles, bright reds and oranges with ethnic Indian-style menus to match.

We sat down to a Indian lunch, starting with poppdums, raita and the incredible mango lassi, as Vikram took to the podium, talking about the food that we were going to eat and his experience starting out in Canada. Over the course of three family-style courses, we were treated to an incredible combination of traditional Indian flavours, cooked to perfection. The Goan coconut prawns were lightly spiced – a point Vikram made, and one that I agreed with whole heartedly, about spicing so that we can taste the layers of flavour in food, and not be running around with our tongues on fire – and the eggplant was lovely and crunchy, with tomatoes and onions adding the fresh, zingy flavour.

We moved on to his family's signature chicken curry (which, when I mentioned the recipe to my mom, she said that it was very similar to our own, but without the coconut milk), with cumin rice, a Kerala style vegetable avial with cumin scented basmati rice.

We then feasted on one of my favourite dishes of the afternoon, a cinnamon scented lamb curry, the spicing so delicate and perfect, the chunks of lamb impossibly and beautifully tender.

Vikram decided that the gathered community needs to eat with their hands – "do you make love with your knife and fork?" – and our table hilariously tried to follow his advice, with me showing my friends my technique for perfect, mess-free hand eating. Vikram circled the tables as we ate, loading up plates with more food, Indian-auntyjee style. He and my mom would bond over this, for sure.

Photo used thanks to Cindy Nguyen

For dessert, we had a twist on a classic Indian dish, a bruleed rice pudding – kheer – heady with rosewater and cardamom, with a light bitter edge from the caramelized brown sugar and the delicate crunch of pistachios.

After lunch, which left us all stuffed to the gills and pleasantly sleepy, I sat down with Vikram for a chat. I wanted to know more about his unofficial Indian-food-ambassador to Canada status, as well as the way in which he built this incredible culinary and showbiz empire. Our conversation flowed easily, with our common knowledge of India meaning that we slipped from talking in English, to Hindi, back to English in the easy way expats do.

"I originally wanted to be a Bollywood actor", he confesses, and as I laughed, he looked at me and said, "... but you know exactly why I didn't  – my father put his foot right down and said NO, straightaway. So I ended up becoming a chef, and moving to Canada". Vikram's story is well known, from his start in Banff to his popular Vancouver eatery Vij's.

"Did you know why I called it Vij's?" he asks me. "When I was growing up, I had this uncle who loved his alcohol. 'Vikram', he would say to me – 'when you grow up you will have a restaurant of you own and I will be the bartender' The reason he wanted me to have my own restaurant is because he knew, that as a relative, I couldn't charge him for the alcohol. Crafty fellow (in Hindi)! But because of him, my restaurant is called Vij's. Not because of my surname."

As a writer who focuses on food and memories of growing up with it, I was curious to know if he had a childhood memory that he associated with food. He recalled fondly his memories of travelling from Delhi to Amritsar to his grandparents' home there. "I loved those Amritsari chhole bhature" he tells me. Ever since he was a child, the first thing he would do on getting to Amritsar was to gorge himself sick on chhole bhature and then be unable to move for hours after.

Photo used with thanks to Sean Neild

Like most Indian expats, Vikram Vij has a fractious relationship with the country of his birth. I, for one, have talked about it in several posts, and it is definitely hard to grow up as a woman in India. Falling back in love with the country is a slow process, but Vikram likens it to a relationship. "It's chaos, complete chaos", he tells me. He tells me that he knows that the country is his, but every time he goes back, he is struck anew at how crazy it is, yet as he puts it "I can't stop going back to it". In many ways, Vikram Vij is the embodiment of the Indo-Canadian dream. He has built up an empire of restaurants, and was the first Indo-Canadian Dragon on Dragon's Den. Yet, he shuns his celebrity and credits his family and friends for keeping him humble. He says that he draws inspiration from every person that he meets and, despite the fact that he is seen as a role model for immigrants in the country, he talks about how, as a result, he has had to work harder to keep up the image and his role in it. Being an immigrant was not easy for him, as he puts it, there were expectations, but in the end he credits his work ethic and his 'always on' personality for his success. Seeing his intense focus as both a chef and a celebrity businessman, and having experienced his larger than life personality, it is not a surprise that this personable man is the success that he is.

The only thing left for him to do is convince the Canadian public that butter chicken is not the extent of Indian food (but then again, if you're here on The Tiffin Box, you know that already, yes?)

(Printable Recipe)

Adapted from From Vij's Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine by Vikram Vij & Meeru Dhalwala

This is the recipe for Vikram's family chicken curry that we had at the NAIT Chef in residence lunch. I have, however, tinkered with it a bit to make it more home-cook and health friendly. I mean, both Vikram and I are from India, he should completely understand my Indian genetic need to tinker with everything, right?

2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon ghee
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 stick of cinnamon or cassia bark
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 inch piece of ginger, grated
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 tablespoon garam masala 
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
6 - 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2 pieces each
1/2 cup sour cream
Water, as required
Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
A large handful of fresh cilantro, chopped, to garnish


Heat the oil and ghee in a heavy based pot, and add the onion and cinnamon stick. Fry on a medium heat, until the onion starts to go golden around the edges, about 5 - 7 minutes.

Add the garlic and the ginger, and saute for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, turmeric, ground cumin, coriander, garam masala and chili powder. Season with a little salt (I used about 1 - 2 teaspoons)

Cook this mixture for about 5 - 10 minutes, until you begin to see the oil shimmer from the edges.

Add the chicken thighs to this mixture, and stir to coat the meat with the masala. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the chicken is beginning to cook through.

Add the sour cream, and a splash of water and continue to simmer for an additional 10 - 15 minutes, until the chicken is fully cooked. Add a splash more water if the sauce is too thick.

Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in the cilantro to garnish and serve with rice or naan.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Roti/ Chapathi/ Phulka - How To Make Soft Rotis

In India we have a saying that all one needs for a comfortable life is roti, kapda aur makhan (food, clothes and home.) It is one of the truths of life that you can be pretty comfortable with very little and with the basic necessities of life, and there are a lot of people in India and in the world who live with just that.

I was chatting with my mum about money. As she put it, she worked all her life, and while she made enough money, she also spent it all on us and our education and to give us a comfortable life that lacked for nothing. Now that she is retired, she made a conscious decision to travel and stay with us, and to spend any money she had on experiences and family. It made me think about my own life and the role of money in it. I am a lucky woman. I have a husband who makes enough money to provide me and my family with a wonderful living, and I also have a job that enables me to have luxuries like being able to attend conferences, spending money on props and eating out, and generally having a very comfortable life. I also understood that I take this very much for granted, and talking to my mother about this made me understand how privileged my life really is.

It also made me realise how important it is to be grateful to the people who make our lives comfortable, happy and fulfilled.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Pear Tarte Tatin With Cardamom, Saffron and Rosewater for Diwali

About a year ago, I was at Adz's school, talking about Diwali to the Grade One class. I talked a bit about India, and how we celebrated many festivals among all the faiths that make up this incredibly diverse and secular country. When I was talking about Diwali, the celebration of light in honour of the Lord Rama's return to his home town, one little voice piped up - "India sounds awesome, Adz's mom. Can you please take me there?"

India has a tradition of celebrating festivals with the kind of joie de vivre that is almost over the top. When Adz and I visited about a year and half ago, Christmas was being celebrated. Adz, who was used to the classy, restrained lights of Canada, was overwhelmed at the colours, music and lights that Indians celebrated festivals with, and to me, it reminded me of India at it's very best.

Diwali, in particular, has a special significance in India, and is one of the biggest festivals in the country. When I was talking about Diwali to the kids, I found this really cute video online, that they loved.

Friday, 2 October 2015

In the past few months, we have heard so much about refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. It's election season here in Canada, and the rhetoric is out in full swing. We hear about immigrants not assimilating into 'our' culture, issues with niqabs, about #PeopleLikeNenshi and #BarbaricCulturalPractices. Racism, islamophobia, homophobia, immigrant hate, divisive politics - all par for the course.

Then we have a picture of a little boy washed up on a beach. Things change for a few days, as we rediscover our compassion, but then they're back to the usual. Fear, loathing and hate.

Stop the world. I want to get off.

I am an immigrant to Canada. It is probably a little more obvious in my case, as I am brown. I know a lot of people here in Edmonton, and I daresay, I am well liked. But in the world out there I am an immigrant, a face among millions that move from the country of their birth for reasons ranging from love (in my case) to fear, to escape, to seek a better life.

I am an immigrant. So –

Do you hate me? Is it because I am brown?

Do you hate that I took a job that should have belonged to a 'Canadian'?

Would you deport me if I failed to pay my library fine, especially if I become a second-class Canadian citizen? (see Bill C-24) Would you deport my daughter, because she was born in England, despite the fact that she was a Canadian citizen first?

Why are you surprised when I speak fluent English, while also being able to converse with my mother in my native language?

Are you scared of me? Am I scary? Am I the 'other'? Do I look like a 'terrorist' if I protest, say, for the environment, or gay rights or equal pay for women?

Do you hate that I write about Indian food?

Should I go back to where I came from?

Are you scared that I won't assimilate into 'Canadian' culture? What is 'Canadian' culture?

Does your family have a 'secret' recipe that came from your immigrant grandmother?

Do you absolutely dislike that I am going to take on a hallowed, traditional dish like stuffing and add my own little twist to it? Am I thumbing my nose at 'old stock' Canadians?

The absolute worst is when people look at me and say, but you're not the kind of immigrant we're talking about. I look at them with pity as I think, no, I am exactly the kind of immigrant you're thinking about. I should be the person you think of when you think of immigrants.

Perhaps all this is a bit too political for just a thanksgiving stuffing recipe. But I am angry. I am angry, and hurt and sad and upset. I am angry that this is the world I am handing over to my daughter.

I am like you, but I am not really, am I? What would it take for me to be seen as 'me' and not the 'other'?

Happy Thanksgiving from my immigrant kitchen!