Beyond noodles and spices: An Interview with Meeru Dhalwala

Vancouver owes its glowing reputation as a diverse city in part to its varied cuisines. However, what do we really mean when we talk about a global cuisine? Meeru Dhalwala, chef, author and co-owner of Indian restaurant Vij’s in Vancouver, talks about what the future of a cuisine away from home might be like.

Simon Fraser University (SFU)’s faculty of Arts and Social Sciences will host its new Global Asia program in a series of short lectures exploring Vancouver’s links with Asia and its multitude of cultures this November. Dhalwala will examine those links through the lens of cuisine. Bringing a breath of fresh air to the conversation on food, Dhalwala reveals that it’s not all about the conventions of nostalgia and fusion.

“Cooking was a form of cultural security for my parents that reassured them that gave them a sense of belonging. You could say that’s a kind of nostalgia”, she says, but adds that for her, as someone who came to North America as a child, Indian cuisine took on a very different set of meanings. “For the diaspora who have lived here – and for their children – it’s more about wanting to have a connection.”

When Dhalwala and Vikram Vij set up their restaurant in Vancouver, they, likewise, did not intend to cater to the feeling of nostalgia. Instead, they planned to help adapt and evolve the cuisine for a modern city in a very modern time.

“I feel that the word fusion actually dilutes the dignity of what we do sometimes,’’ she says, “it’s as if our cuisine must be either traditional or fusion, and cannot be modernized.”

The word fusion, she explains, is far too generic in its usage in recent times.

“This is one of the points which I intend to speak on in my talk: does global imply fusion? What exactly do we mean by fusion, or by global, and are they very different?”

She also points out the cultural nuances behind her points, with an emphasis on cuisine not being merely about luscious Instagram photographs of food, and being more about histories.

“For instance, we have a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisine, but the two cultures rarely connect or have much camaraderie. Or take the case of Japan, where they have Japanese curry, but it tastes nothing like Indian curry.”

For her, Asian histories, and the history shared with Canada are extremely important when it comes to understanding the cuisine that they give rise to – as well as how to think about it.

“How many of us Asians actually feel like, or are considered as, Asian here? Asian is synonymous with Chinese, while other south-east Asian origins are sidelined. Indians are considered Indo-Canadian, and Punjabis are assumed to be part of a different collective altogether,” she says.

Dhalwala is known to be a staunch proponent for the use of local produce, and recounts how she would work with local vegetable vendors at the vegetable market in Ahmedabad, India as part of her post-field work for her master’s degree in Economic Development. It was a beautiful, well thought out system, which was completely local.

Meeru Dhalwala, chef, author and co-owner of Indian restaurant Vij’s. | Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

“Indian cuisine is based on eggplant and cauliflower and tomatoes,’’ she says, “but I buy my eggplants from local markets here because of its freshness. For things like chickpeas, they really don’t have to come from India for me. However, would I buy cloves from India? Absolutely!”

Dhalwala buys certain spices from India, such as haldi (turmeric) and dalchini (cinnamon) because that’s where they come from, and where she would choose to source them from. Spices are the anchor of her take on Indian cuisine. They ensure that its inherent identity is maintained, but it is allowed to adapt from there on without losing its personality.

“I see it as a way to share and embrace: to share what I come with and embrace where I live right now,” she says.

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