Eating & Drinking

OUT
OF
INDIA

Influenced by myriad traditions
and cultures, India’s cuisine is
wonderfully rich and varied.
Until recently, food from the
North has dominated, but
thanks to a southern renaissance, we now get
to enjoy the subcontinent’s culinary diversity
By Dee Hon // Photographs
by Shannon Mendes

Bombay calling
A fixture since 1981, Raga
on Broadway serves some
of the juiciest, tenderest
tandoori in the city

A P R I L 2 0 0 8 VA N M A G . C O M 9 9

Eating & Drinking OUT OF INDIA

Southern comfort
With outposts all over the
world, Saravanaa Bhavan,
serving southern-style
vegetarian dishes, touched
down here in January

Authentic
I RUN INTO THE WORD whenever I eat
or discuss Indian food. Sure enough, it’s
right on the menu at newly opened Saravanaa Bhavan on Broadway: “Authentic
South Indian cuisine.”
“I hate that word,” says my lunch
companion, Meeru Dhalwala, as she
helps herself to the buffet of classic South
Indian dishes like channa, idli, sambar,
and other assorted treats. Dhalwala is half
of the husband-and-wife team behind the
ceaselessly celebrated Vij’s and Rangoli
restaurants just off Granville. (The other
half is her husband, Vikram Vij.) No one
would ever call their recipes “authen-

1 0 0 VA N M A G . C O M A P R I L 2 0 0 8

tic”—in the context of their genre-bending restaurants, the word is oppressive.
Vij’s earned its fame by fusing Indian
flavours with local ingredients and contemporary cooking techniques; Rangoli
does a more casual version of the same.
They’re tossing “authenticity” aside to
create food that’s more connected to immediate influences than to an imagined,
far-away past.
Yet the lunch we’re enjoying today
at Saravanaa Bhavan (a chain of South
Indian restaurants with locations in eight
countries worldwide, including a whopping 19 in its hometown of Chennai)

encapsulates something else happening
to Indian food, both in Vancouver and on
a global scale. Northern-style food—with
its rich, stew-like curries and tandoorcooked meats—has long been synonymous with Indian cuisine in these parts,
so much so that bastardized versions of
Punjabi-style samosas and butter chicken
turn up in 7-Elevens and Costco freezers. But after decades of a northern-style
stranglehold, southern cooking is storming Vancouver kitchens.
I discovered Indian food as a child, at
a Calgary restaurant called Taj Mahal. I
tasted a masala of spices and a richness
of textures I’d never imagined during my
upbringing of char siu and cheeseburgers:
tandoori chicken, basmati rice cooked
with cardamom, the velvety potato-andspinach curry saag aloo. I was convinced
I’d never taste anything finer.
Northern Indian food is, at heart, food
descended from the courts of the legendary Mughal emperors, whose pursuit of
luxury knew no bounds. These rulers controlled northern India, but had
ethnic roots in what is now Uzbekistan
and Afghanistan. The clay tandoor oven
in particular has Central Asian lineage.
Imported chefs came from everywhere
the Mughal empire touched. Europeans,
particularly the Portuguese, introduced
foods like potatoes, tomatoes, and even
chili peppers from their conquests in
South America. (Before 1500, the hottest
Indian spice was black pepper.) The nowstandard Indian vindaloo is a corruption of the Portuguese carne de vinho e
alhos—pork cooked in wine vinegar. You
can sample the progenitors of what we
now call northern Indian cuisine in the
kebabs and palaws at the Afghan Horsemen near Granville Island, and at Persian
restaurants on the North Shore.
India’s food is as varied as its array
of religions, landscapes, and cultures.
Recipes differ from village to village, even
from house to house, but the line between
northern food (those marinated tandoor
meats and butter-rich curries) and
southern food (pancake-like breads
and thinner, more soup-like curries) is
bold and clear. Overall, southern dishes
are lighter and more suited to everyday dining, with sharp tangy tamarind,
citrusy-and-bitter curry leaves, velvety
coconut, and generous doses of chilies the
dominant flavours. The dosa, a crêpe-like

Master of the masala
Pondy Veera, who hails from
Madras, helms the stove at
Saravanaa Bhavan

A P R I L 2 0 0 8 VA N M A G . C O M 1 0 1

Eating & Drinking OUT OF INDIA
Northern Foundations

Raga
1177 W. Broadway, 604-733-1127

This West Side institution, which opened
in 1981, serves food fit for the legendary
Mughal emperors. Raga’s charcoal-fired
tandoor produces luxuriously tender
meat. Chicken is unbelievably juicy;
prawns are plump and tender. Light curries allow the spices to sing—this is why
you fell for Indian food in the first place.
Many vegetarian options are available.

Ashiana Tandoori
1440 Kingsway, 604-874-5060

Writing in this magazine in the early
1990s, James Barber called Ashiana’s
“undoubtedly the best Indian food in the
city.” And its northern-style classics still
earn gushing reviews. The menu and the
prices haven’t changed since 1992, but
are Punjabi, and so you might think the
pancake made from a fermented batter
chef/owner Rick Takhar keeps re-inventing his food; his newest creations are
quality of the food would be fantastic by
of rice, urad dal, and water, is perhaps
the region’s most famous export; idlis are sheer force of numbers. But India’s restau- found on the takeout menu. Try “Chef
rant culture has only recently blossomed Rick specialties” like jaan-e-man—potasteamed cakes made with similar batter.
Both are usually served with sambar, a
in the wake of globalization. Historically, toes, jackfruit, cauliflower, and spinach
cooked in peanut sauce—and tofu corn
social and religious beliefs restricted not
lentil-based stew, and a variety of chutneys. Nooru Mahal, a six-year-old Fraser only the foods people ate, but whom they methi malai. The sauce for his gingerand-garlic-infused chicken dilpasand is
ate with and the kinds of people they
Street spot run by Sri Lankan native Raj
would allow to serve them. An uppersublime; ask for the takeout menu even if
Aiyathurai, is a stalwart, and one of the
caste Brahmin, for example, would never you dine in.
city’s original southern Indian restaurants—regional devotees love Aiyathurai’s put lips to a cup that had been used by a
recipes, which come not from the generic Dalit, who belongs to the lowest rung.
Southern Wave
Modern restaurant culture grew in the
“South” but from Sri Lanka in particular.
1920s and 1930s out of the necessity
Back at Saravanaa Bhavan, our converto feed a swelling class of urban office
4354 Fraser St., 604-873-9263
sation turns to a menu item at Rangoli.
workers. Even today, Indian restaurants
Nooru Mahal was a Punjabi restaurant
Dhalwala has created a dish of black
chickpea, pea, and onion cakes in a spicy are mainly utilitarian eateries, not places
until Sri Lankan native Raj Aiyathurai
to seek pleasure in a meal; home-cooked took control six years ago, giving Vancoucoconut curry. I assumed the dish was
meals remain the best way to experience
inspired by a southern recipe—not so,
verites a taste of the subcontinent’s
Indian food. In Mumbai, deliverymen
southern flavours. Sri Lankan–style kingexplains Dhalwala. She had no qualms
about adding southern coconut to a dish transport tens of thousands of homemade fish curry is light and brothy compared
lunches each day from wives and mothers to the gravy-like stews of the north. It’s a
with Punjabi spices. She didn’t grow up
to their working men, in a network as
sharp, one-two bite of tangy tamarind and
in India, and thus doesn’t feel burdened
hot chilies. Sop it up with flaky southernby its conventions. A lot of the fuss about intricate as an ant colony.
This shallow history of restaurant
what is and isn’t authentic, she says, has
style paratha bread. Nooru Mahal’s idlis—
fluffy, sourdough-like steamed rice and
to do with marketing. No restaurant own- culture in India means that many establishments in Vancouver are started
er questioned here would dare admit his
lentil cakes—are perfect models. Nooru
by immigrants with business, or other
Mahal also offers its own take on fusion,
food isn’t authentic. In India, such rules
are too rigid for such a varied cuisine. “If non-culinary, backgrounds. There is little found in southern dosas filled with northern stuffings like vindaloo. Singaporean
you actually get an Indian chef,” she says prestige in becoming a chef, so young
staff have also lent their touch to the
with a laugh, “he’ll say, ‘I don’t know if it’s Indians don’t typically aspire to the profession; for the most part, restaurants here menu: Sri Lankan sting hoppers—patties
authentic. It’s mine.’ ”
Vancouver boasts countless Indian res- are established by people who can work a of fine rice noodles—get a Singaporean
spreadsheet but not a clay oven.
treatment with coconut and palm sugar
taurants, thanks to the region’s 150,000So where do you find really great Indian to make puttu mayam. “Only in Canada,”
strong Indo-Canadian community. Most
food in Vancouver? We’ve got some ideas. says Aiyathurai of his creation.
of the immigrants, and their restaurants,
Rainbow bright

A sample of the assorted
treats at All India Sweets

Nooru Mahal

1 0 2 VA N M A G . C O M A P R I L 2 0 0 8

Beyond butter chicken
Saffron lamb chops in coconut
saffron cream sauce at Mysala,
the latest addition to downtown
Granville Street’s eclectic mix
of eateries

A P R I L 2 0 0 8 VA N M A G . C O M 1 0 3

Eating & Drinking OUT OF INDIA

Saravanaa Bhavan
955 W. Broadway, 604-732-7700

With 41 restaurants around the world
including places like Delhi, Dubai, Oman,
London, New York, and Toronto, Saravanaa Bhavan is the surest sign the world
is catching on to southern Indian cuisine.
The Vancouver branch of the chain
opened in January to lineups out the door
for vegetarian food that is light, fresh, and
full of spice. Northern-style dishes are
kept on a separate menu to keep diners
focused on the South. Stick to the dosas,
utthappams, adais, and other southern
treats. A bonus: the prices are unbelievably low.

Chutney Villa
147 E. Broadway, 604-872-2228

Chutney Villa’s southern-style curries
earn the spotlight, bursting with permutations of coconut, curry leaves, and hot
chilies. But take note of the namesake
chutneys; the not-so-“authentic” pear
and banana chutney is outstanding.

1 0 4 VA N M A G . C O M A P R I L 2 0 0 8

Global Excursions

Samosa Garden
3502 Kingsway, 604-437-3502

Samosa Garden has plenty of Punjabi
standards on the menu, and its tandoorbaked naan is perhaps the best in town.
But the real lure is to sample foods from
East Africa’s Indian community. Samosa
Garden’s highlights include masala tilapia, the love child born of Indian spices
and African fish. Kuku paka, from the
Swahili words for “chicken” and “rub,”
is a delicious curry of grilled chicken
marinated in coconut milk.

Green Lettuce
1948 Kingsway, 604-876-9883

This is Chinese food the way Indian people eat it. On weekend nights, Indo-Canadian families line up and squeeze into
Green Lettuce for a taste of home. Just as
Chinese immigrants to Canada tailored
local ingredients to suit their palates (and
created uniquely Chinese-Canadian cui-

sine), India’s Chinese immigrants infused
their recipes with Indian spices and heat.
The result is dishes like gobi Manchurian,
crispy battered cauliflower with a sauce of
chilies, onions, and cumin.

Indian 2.0

Vij’s
1480 W. 11th Ave., 604-736-6664

Vij’s reigns as one of the world’s most
celebrated Indian restaurants. Its stillrevolutionary blend of contemporary
cooking and Indian flavours helped
spawn a modern-Indian movement from
London to New York to Toronto. But
while others seek to elevate Indian cuisine with ostentation—witness London’s
Rasoi and its tandoori chicken wrapped
in 24-karat gold foil—Vij’s transforms
quality local ingredients to make food
that’s unexpected, dynamic, and always
appetizing. Try the beef short ribs, served
in a cinnamon and red wine curry with
warm greens.

Rangoli

Groceries
sauce are all cooked on a state-of-the-art
grill (although there are tandoor items on
The pulled pork with sour cream chutney the menu). Partners Paul Thind and Davy
is like a sloppy Indian pulled pork burSangara hope to develop the concept into 6635 Main St., 604-322-5502
rito, a ménage à trois of Indian, Mexican, a casual fine-dining chain, an Indian ver- These grocery stores in the Punjabi Market offer all manner of spices, vegetables,
and American Southwest. The fresh mint sion of Earls or Cactus Club.
and mango chutney breathes new life into
and Indian cooking tools, like non-stick
griddles to cook chapattis or pappadthe classic Punjabi snack of samosas with Sweets and Snacks
channa masala. Playful and relaxed, Vij’s
ums. Here you’ll find all the necessary
ingredients to make curries, dosas, and
all-day younger sibling hits all the right
idlis from scratch, or take a chance on
notes for lunch or a casual dinner.
powdered mixes (though they won’t pro6507 Main St., 604-327-0891
Situated in Main Street’s Punjabi Market, duce the same results). Simplest of all are
980 Granville St., 604-688-2969
All India features tables overflowing with pappadums—toss them in your toaster
oven for a quick and tasty snack.
neon Indian sweets up front and buffet
Vancouver’s Indian restaurants are usually mom-and-pop shops; Mysala is what steam tables at the back. Try the hyperhappens when the kids grow up and open sweet gulab jamun, pastry balls made
of powdered milk, then deep-fried and
their own joint. This 60-seat lounge,
in the heart of the Granville bar zone,
dipped in honey syrup. Skip the bufmashes urban cool with Indian flair: deep fet and order savoury items à la carte.
10 new and notable rooms
booths, flickering candlelight, groovy
Indo-Canadian families take a break from
electro-Indian beats. The menu is stream- browsing the nearby sari shops to load
lined to fewer than a dozen mains. AAA
up on snacks of samosas with chutney
If you were to run Vancouver’s most
and chickpea curry, or meats cooked in
rib-eye steak, free-range chicken, and
the tandoor.
grilled wild salmon with cilantro mint
talented culinary professionals through
1488 West 11th Ave., 604-736-5711

Punjab Food Centre

All India Sweets and
Restaurant

Mysala Indian Bistro

Recently Reviewed
Boneta

the fire

starter.

Davie Street • West Broadway
Langley • Richmond
Robson • West Georgia • Guildford
A P R I L 2 0 0 8 VA N M A G . C O M 1 0 5