Intensely focused and authoritative, Meeru Dhalwala vigorously stirs a battered saucepan of sizzling onions and spitting oil.
“Every piece of onion plays a role—some sweet, some depth, some bitter,” she says. We’re after the “full gambit of onion flavor.”
Those onions are destined for what Dhalwala calls an Indian spin on Korea’s bibimbap—a yellow split pea and mung bean curry topped with fried eggs, served over rice. I call it a perfect one-pot meal.
We’re at Vij’s, the 23-year-old restaurant Dhalwala runs with Vikram Vij in Vancouver, British Columbia. Largely self-taught, her dishes are fundamentally Indian but play fast and loose with flavorings.
That philosophy fills their cookbook, “Vij’s Indian,” with recipes like Bengali-style black bean and corn curry (a vegetarian spin on chili); bacon-wrapped paneer; and a creamy yam curry spiked with ginger, mustard seeds and cayenne. It’s a casual approach to classic recipes that can otherwise intimidate home cooks.
Dhalwala cooks in the restaurant’s surprisingly simple kitchen. There are squat kettle burners, a steam oven for rice, a broad range, an electric tandoor. The air is heady with warm toasted garlic and sharp cumin seed, the musty smell of basmati rice.
To the golden onions, she adds chopped garlic and fresh ginger. The aromatics “share the bathtub” and form the base of the masala, the fundamental flavoring agent used in most Indian curries, sauces and dals.
Next comes a heaping spoonful of earthy, vibrant yellow turmeric. Dhalwala calls it the gesso of the dish, something you’ll never notice except in its absence. It lays an essential base note for the masala’s flavor and warms its color.
Whole cumin seeds follow, as does a spoonful of ground fresh jalapeño and a scoop of tomato puree— a sweet contrast to reinforce the turmeric. The blend melds briefly before Dhalwala spoons in split peas and mung beans that have simmered soft in another pot. Then it’s time to serve.
A pair of sunny-side-up eggs top the curry before it’s mixed together. We devour it with garlicky raita. The flavors are deep, earthy, decidedly Indian—and developed far faster and easier than I expected.
Must have been those onions.