Meeru Dhalwala tells us how Indian cuisine is more than butter chicken.
Host: Gloria Tsang, RD
Guest: Meeru Dhalwala
In celebration of May being Asian Heritage month, and inspired by the success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, we cast this month’s spotlight on tasty Indian cuisine. Author and Vancouver Sun columnist Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner of the world-famous restaurant Vij’s in Vancouver, BC, tells us how Indian cuisine is more than butter chicken.
Gloria Tsang, RD: In celebration of May being Asian Heritage month, and inspired by the success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, we cast this month’s spotlight on tasty Indian cuisine. Now, if the image that comes to your mind at the mention of Indian cuisine is butter chicken, then you have a long way to go! Welcome to the Nutrition Tidbits podcast. This is Gloria Tsang, editor-in-chief for HealthCastle.com. Joining me today is author and Vancouver Sun columnist Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner of the world-famous restaurant Vij’s in Vancouver, BC. She is here today to tell us how Indian cuisine is more than butter chicken.
Thank you for joining me Meeru.
Meeru Dhalwala: Hi Gloria. Thank you for having me.
Gloria Tsang, RD: Let’s expand our definition of Indian cuisine. Now India has such a rich, diverse food culture. And one important part of that food culture consists of many vegetarian dishes. Could you give us examples of some common vegetarian entrees?
Meeru Dhalwala: Well, the most common are eggplant, cauliflower, peas, spinach and all of the greens. There really isn’t a green that you wouldn’t use. You could even use broccoli when you are cooking Indian food. Then, you’ve also got the lentils and beans. Basically, the spice pallet is so huge that you really that there is really an ingredient that you can’t use with Indian food.
Gloria Tsang, RD: One of our items that we often talk to ours users about on HealthCastle.com is legumes (beans and lentils). But many really shy away from them thinking that they take a long time to prepare or simply just too difficult to prepare. Can you share some of your favorite ways to prepare legumes or some tricks and tips for a good meatless dish?
Meeru Dhalwala: There are different types of legumes. Let’s say you don’t have a whole lot of time. I tell people, look, even if you don’t have to soak the bean or put them in a pressure cooker or slow cooker because you don’t think that far in advance about dinner, can just buy the canned beans. That is absolutely fine. At home, I tend to use a pressure cooker. This can be intimidating to people at times but it’s worth the investment and once you get a hang of how it’s used, you can have organic beans literally for $0.45 or something. It’s not just beans and salt, which is boring, but its beans with onions, garlic, cumin seeds, coriander and turmeric. If you want, you can add a little bit of yogurt in to the whatever bean curry that you are making. You turn something as boring as beans into a really hearty meal that is way better tasting than even a vegetarian chilli, which has tofu and kidney beans in it.
Gloria Tsang, RD: That sounds so tasty!
Meeru Dhalwala: The depth that you get, whether you get chickpeas, kidsney beans, pinto beans, mung beans, and even orange / red lentils, those cook very quickly, in about 20 minutes. So it’s almost endless.
Gloria Tsang, RD: Wow, you sound so excited about cooking beans.
Meeru Dhalwala: Yes, I do get quite excited about it.
Gloria Tsang, RD: For some of the home cooks, what are some of the common spices or maybe spice combinations that you recommend they stock in their own pantries?
Meeru Dhalwala: What I recommend first of all for everything is turmeric. It almost looks like orange talcum powder. Turmeric is an Indian spice that comes from a rhizome, like a ginger. In India, we dry it out and then turn it into a powder. It looks like a skinnier orange ginger. Now, on top of it being the basic, bottom-line spice that you would use in Indian cooking, it also has so many health benefits to it.
Gloria Tsang, RD: Yes, we have all heard about that. So what other spices should have other than turmeric.
Meeru Dhalwala: So after the turmeric, then the next layer would be cumin and coriander.
Gloria Tsang, RD: So how would you do that? Do you use the fresh or dried version?
Meeru Dhalwala: There is two ways. Coriander, when it’s the green leaves in the produce section, we refer to that as cilantro. And the seeds of cilantro we refer to as coriander. So coriander you can buy it in the whole seed form. It depends on how much time you have. The best way to do it is to buy them in the little brown seeds, bring them home. Then roast them up a little bit in the frying pan just so they kind of turned a shade of a darker brown. And then grind them as you need them. And the same goes for cumin. You can buy the cumin seeds and roast them the same way, no oil, nothing. Kind of roast them in the frying pan until they turn a little darker shade. And then grind them as you need them, even in a separate coffee grinder. But these three spices, coriander, cumin and turmeric, they are the basics for hundreds of Indian dishes.
Gloria Tsang, RD: These are great tips. Now Meeru, I have heard that at your restaurant Vij’s, all the spice mixes as well as dairy items like yogurt, cheese and ghee are all made fresh on a daily basis.
Meeru Dhalwala: We make it all here, yeah.
Gloria Tsang, RD: What is the difference between your own recipe, let’s say of yogurt and cheese, and those that we buy from the grocery stores?
Meeru Dhalwala: It just has that homemade taste. I wouldn’t say that it’s better or worst, it just has that homemade taste. For us, if we buy the whole spices, we can sift through the spices. When they are being imported from India, there can be a lot of other particles in the spices so we get rid of all of that. Then once we have sifted through the spices, we roast them and we grind them. When you do that, A, the flavor has a lot more depth to it. And B, if it’s just a regular ground up powder, we found that we would have to use up to 4 or 5 tablespoons. But when we get our own and are in control of our own ingredients, we only have to use 1 or 2 tablespoons.
Gloria Tsang, RD: Because they are more potent.
Meeru Dhalwala: It’s just way more potent.
Gloria Tsang, RD: Now Vij’s has always been in the forefront of showcasing local ingredients that are in season, even before the local sustainable movement became trendy. Being an Indian restaurant, sometimes people thought you have to bring food from India to be authentic. So what are some of the adjustments you have made to your ingredient list to still allow your kitchen to what diners considers authentic Indian foods?
Meeru Dhalwala: As far as vegetables are concerned, we didn’t make any adjustments because like I said… Well, maybe sunchokes and rhubarb are the 2 vegetables that I have not been able to figure out how to cook with Indian spices. But on the produce side, we have not had to make many adjustments. It was more the seafood. One thing that is very important to me and my husband, Vikram, is to use local, sustainable seafood. So that is where we made the adjustment. For example, sablefish is a local fish here in British Columbia that comes in season. Well, it’s a smokier, oilier fish. Whereas a lot of the Indian spices is used to a flakier white fish like pomfret, versus an oilier fish like sablefish. That’s where we had to make the adjustments with the spices. Do we use onions? Do we use just tomatoes? You know, you play around. So I would say seafood is the most important one for us that we had to made spice adjustments for.
Gloria Tsang, RD: For readers who are just completely Indian food beginners, can you suggest a few dishes that are beginners friendly?
Meeru Dhalwala: I will give you the ingredients. Most importantly, even if you are a beginner, onions and garlic are just a necessity. They just match the spices so well. I can give you a 2 second recipe.
- About 2 tablespoons of oil
- 1 large clove of garlic (chopped)
- 1 medium-sized onion (chopped)
- Sauté onions until golden brown
- Add garlic until all is golden brown
- Add 1 teaspoon of turmeric, 1 teaspoon of cumin,1 teaspoon of coriander and 1 teaspoon of salt
- Stir it up and add a tomato (optional)
Add anything else that you enjoy like vegetables (cauliflower). Add a little potato and cook up the cauliflower like a stir fry. If you like chickpeas for example, open up a can of chickpeas, put the chick peas in there and add a little bit of water. Just let it come to a boil and you got yourself some chickpeas.
Gloria Tsang, RD: Perfect, these are great tips. Thank you again for joining me Meeru.
Meeru Dhalwala: You are welcome, thank you.
Gloria Tsang, RD: We have been talking to Meeru Dhalwala, Co-Owner of Indian restaurant Vij’s in Vancouver. For more healthy eating tidbits and information about this show, go to HealthCastle.com.
Gloria Tsang is the author of 5 books and the founder of HealthCastle.com, the largest online nutrition network run by registered dietitians. Her work has appeared in major national publications, and she is a regularly featured nutrition expert for media outlets across the country. The Huffington Post named her one of its Top 20 Nutrition Experts on Twitter. Gloria’s articles have appeared on various media such as Reuters, NBC & ABC affiliates, The Chicago Sun-Times, Reader’s Digest Canada, iVillage and USA Today.