Butter chicken and Blueberry Lassi: Food Adventures in Vancouver

I perceive my six month field work in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to be more of a food adventure rather than “field work”. On my adventures I have come across many wonderful and wonderfully weird items of food. Vancouver has a diverse food scene reflecting its multicultural population. For example the Richmond Night Market, an annual summer market held in the City of Richmond has a variety of food stalls selling foods such as bubble tea and chocolate covered bacon (sounds gross, but tastes pretty darn good). Over the past five years there has been an increased change in the Vancouver food scene. The most noticeable is the rise of the number of food trucks which started off with Japadog, selling Japanese style hotdogs (see Burnett, 2012 for further details). For the purpose of this blog entry I choose to focus on Vij’s Railway Express food truck.

Vij’s food empire
Vij’s is well known for its Indian fusion food, pairing local and seasonal ingredients with Indian spices. The Vij’s line is owned and run by Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala. The Vij’s food portfolio consists of two restaurants Vij’s which opened in 1994, and Rangoli in 2004, which is located next door to Vij’s. They have also published two cook books, Vij’s: Elegant and inspired cooking (2006) presenting recipes that are served at the restaurant, and Vij’s at home: Relax, honey (2010) presenting recipes that Vij and Dhalwala cook at home. There is also a line of ready made meals which are sold at Rangoli and in high end grocery stores throughout the city. More recently Vij’s Railway Express which was launched in June 2012. One can therefore argue that Vij’s is not just merely an establishment in Vancouver, but more of a brand that has re-defined Indian cuisine in Vancouver beyond the Punjabi and Indian Raj styles of Indian cuisine.

Vij’s Railway Express
Vij’s Railway Express is located in the heart of Vancouver downtown and is often seen at food truck festivals. The menu for the food truck is inspired by foods Indian railway food, using locally sourced ingredients. The blueberry lassi (figure 1) is the food truck’s most innovative product, as far as fruit flavoured lassi is concerned mango is usually the most commonly used fruit. However, Vij’s take on the lassi uses local blueberries, and is served in a plastic bag with a straw. The blueberry lassi reflects Vij’s ethos of combination of the local with the Indian, and offering something that is unique.

My blueberry lassi

Figure 1: My blueberry lassi

The food truck offers patrons dishes that are available at Rangoli, the slightly more affordable restaurant out of the two, and also has other dishes such as the butter chicken schnitzel, which is described by Dhalwala (2010, p. 166) as a “signature family dish”. For customers, it gives them the opportunity to purchase a dish that is consumed in the Vij-Dhalwala household. Vij’s Railway Express is the only Vij’s establishment which serves butter chicken, as Vikram was determined not to serve butter chicken at his restaurant because every other Indian restaurant does. Butter chicken appears to be a popular food among Canadians, and is featured in almost every way possible, like butter chicken pizza, butter chicken lasagne, and butter chicken poutine (I eagerly await for invention of butter chicken ice cream)!

The truck itself is also interesting in terms of the use of paisley patterns, which are associated with Indian design. The logo is an impression of a stamp with the Indian emblem in the middle with Vij’s Railway Express written on the outside in English and Hindi (figure 2).

Figure 2: Vij's Railway Express logo

Figure 2: Vij’s Railway Express logo

What is particularly striking is the slogan (figure 3): “Curry art in motion”, indicating that it is food on the move and that cuisine is an art, not just something that we eat or in Vij’s case, just a business.

Figure 3: Vij's Railway Express slogan

Figure 3: Vij’s Railway Express slogan

The establishment of a food truck has made what is seen as gourmet cuisine more accessible and available to a wider audience.

Food for Thought
The example of Vij’s railway Express highlights the City of Vancouver’s food philosophy of using fresh local ingredients wherever possible, especially where sustainability and food security are concerned. More importantly it also highlights the interaction between multiculturalism and food, not in terms of the consumption of ethnic foods, but going beyond this by getting immigrant communities to think about how they interact with food, by using fresh local ingredients in their daily lives, and for people to question where food comes from. For Dhalwala this is all about defetishizing the commodity.

References:
Burnett, K. (2012) Restaurants that changed Vancouver: Japadog. Spacing Vancouver (online). Retrieved from: http://spacing.ca/vancouver/2012/09/12/restaurants-that-changed-vancouver-japadog/
Dhalwala, M. and Vij, V. (2010) Vij’s at home: Relax, honey Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre
Vij, V. and Dhalwala, M. (2006). Vij’s: Elegant and inspired Indian cuisine Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre

Priya Vadi (PhD Candidate)

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