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?)
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.