Celebrity chefs are a part of a cultural phenomenon Canadians have embraced in the last twenty years. Unlike an actor, they don’t have to go to Hollywood to make it big. Give them a good cookbook or especially a show on Food Network Canada and they are halfway there. But they still really have to know how to cook. Yesterday I spent some time with one of Canada’s celebrity chefs on his quick visit to Victoria. To listen to our entire conversation, click here to listen to the mp3 audio file.
Vikram Vij is probably the most well-known East Indian chef we have here in Canada, especially to us here on the West Coast. Anyone who is into a more modern style of Indian food has likely been to the eponymous Vij’s in Vancouver, or perhaps to Rangoli, his more casual eatery right next door. He has a food cart in Vancouver called Vij’s Railway Express, there are cookbooks, Food Network appearances, and more.
Last year he lent his support to another food outlet at the Victoria Public Market called Sutra, which has Vij-style take-out food, but also offers his complete line of frozen ‘boil-in-a-bag’ take-home dishes as well as a selection of his spices and spice blends. He came here to check up on the new operation and do a couple of cooking demos, one of which was at the Victoria Public Market yesterday at lunchtime.
People were clearly excited about his visit because all the seats in front of the Market kitchen were full about half an hour before his arrival and a little buzz ran through the crowd as he arrived. Karen Elgersma from Shaw TV was there to do an interview before the cooking demo and she admitted she was quite shaky and nervous just to be in his presence. Now that’s celebrity status.
What is it about him that people love so much? It could be because of his piercing blue eyes…and of course the taste of the food he has developed over the years with the help of his mother and his wife Meeru, but I think the main attraction is that he is so personable and honest with everyone. He doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen at Vij’s during service, he is circulating throughout the restaurant, greeting people, offering them some hot chai or snacks if they have to line up, which you frequently do, he does not take reservations, but he makes you feel special and is genuinely concerned about the experience he wants you to have. He finds that after all these years, even on the West Coast where we have a large Indo-Canadian population, Indian food still needs to be explained to people.
It’s not easy, because it can be so diverse, but to give you an example, he asked everyone at the start of his demo if they were allergic to curry. Vikram says at least once a day, someone walks into his restaurant and says they are allergic to curry. “But curry is made up of so many different ingredients. Maybe you’re allergic to cilantro, but you can just leave cilantro out, then. People tend to lump everything together. How can you be allergic to curry?
So that was the first lesson …curry can be a blend of many different spices and flavours and doesn’t have to be exactly the same each time. Vikram then proceeded to take us through the recipe that has the most food stains on it in our copy of this cookbook he and his wife published a few years ago, Vij’s Inspired and Elegant Indian Cuisine. Vij Family’s Chicken Curry. I watched him make it, then went home and checked the recipe so I could make it for you. And I have to tell you that he definitely did things differently yesterday than what is printed in the book. But that’s okay. His analogy always is that of an artist using a palette of colours. If the artist wanted to make an entire canvas black with one dot, he can do it. If you want a curry with tons of hot pepper in it, you can do it, because you are the one that is ultimately going to enjoy it.
So I took to heart some of his tips and also went with what I had on hand at home. I used butter to cook the onions instead of vegetable oil, I had cumin seed instead of ground cumin, used up some frozen tomatoes along with fresh, and although the recipe calls for sour cream to blend into the curry, I used a can of coconut milk instead.
Here’s the recipe:
VIJ FAMILY’S CHICKEN CURRY
Number of Servings: 6
½ cup (130 ml) canola oil
2 cups (500 ml) onion, finely chopped
1 3-in cinnamon stick
3 tbsp (60 ml) garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp (30 ml) ginger, chopped
2 cups (500 ml) tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp (15 ml) salt
½ tsp (2.5 ml) ground black pepper
1 tsp (5 ml) turmeric
1 tbsp (15 ml) ground cumin
1 tbsp (15 ml) ground coriander
1 tbsp (15 ml) garam masala (an aromatic blend of spices often used in Indian cooking, available in specialty stores)
½ tsp (2.5 ml) ground cayenne pepper
3 lb (1350 g) chicken thighs, bone in
1 cup (250 ml) sour cream, stirred
2 cups (500 ml) water
½ cup (130 ml) cilantro, chopped (including stems)
DIRECTIONS – In a large pan, heat oil on medium heat for 1 minute. Add onions and cinnamon, and sauté for another 4 minutes. Add ginger, garlic, tomatoes, salt, black pepper, turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala and cayenne. Cook for 5 minutes, or until oil separates.
Remove and discard skin from chicken thighs. Wash thighs and add to prepared mixture. Stir well. Cook chicken thighs for 10 minutes, until chicken looks cooked on the outside. Add sour cream and water and stir well. Increase heat to medium-high. When curry starts to boil, reduce heat to medium, cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times, until chicken is completely cooked. Poke thighs with a knife. If meat is still pink, cook for 5 more minutes.
Remove and discard cinnamon stick. Cool curry for at least half an hour. Transfer cooled chicken to a mixing bowl. Wearing latex gloves, peel chicken meat off the bones. Discard bones and stir chicken back into curry. Just before serving, heat curry on medium heat until it starts to boil lightly. Stir in cilantro. To serve, divide curry evenly among six bowls. Serve with naan or rice.
Places to find East Indian grocery items in Victoria:
Gobind Food Market 8-4011 Quadra St, Victoria 250-479-8884
Sutra at the Victoria Public Market also sells Vij’s spice products.
And check out this directory on Chef Heidi Fink’s website.