At their restaurant Vij's in Vancouver, BC, Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij made Vancouver—and the world—understand that Indian cooking didn't have to be shackled to butter-chicken convention. Instead of steam-table buffets, diners got candlelight, chic modern design, and free-spirited curries made with ingredients like lamb chops, short ribs, and piles of BC vegetables. They took no reservations and made waiting for a table a kind of party in itself, with passed appetizers and aperitifs. For almost 20 years, Seattle diners had to settle for occasional trips north of the border to eat at Vij's or their more casual spot, Rangoli. Thankfully, late in 2012, Meeru opened Shanik in Seattle's South Lake Union with business partner Oguz Istif; last year, they added Shanik Market next door, with less expensive to-go/make-at-home options.
Working with a kitchen full of women who have emigrated from both India and Ethiopia, Meeru serves stellar versions of familiar dishes like samosas and saag paneer, but also encourages you to try things you've never tasted before. Here's where you can get goat stew, braised with the oniony perfume of nigella seed (or kalonji). Vegetarians can eat with abandon, sampling delicious chutney-slathered potatoes and lentils, chewy jackfruit in kale curry, or a deep blend of black chickpeas with eggplant. And Meeru is not afraid to serve you flatbread augmented with toasted ground crickets, just to prove that eating low on the food chain is tastier—and less scary—than it sounds. She splits her time between Vancouver and Seattle.
How did you start cooking professionally? I had a mom who was cooking Indian food every day except Friday night. She would sift and roast and grind all the spices; I didn't know it, but I picked up all that attention to detail cooking from scratch. When I moved to BC in the early '90s, Vikram had a brand-new 14-seat restaurant, and I had no work permit. I started helping out, at first just washing dishes. But I remembered the smells of my childhood—it was very natural from there. In five months, I went to him and said, "Give me a chance to cook," and he said, "Okay!"
What are your favorite Seattle restaurants? I love going to the Harvest Vine, the Spanish-Basque restaurant in Madison Valley. I love nothing more than their marinated anchovies. I also walk to Mistral—it's a total treat—William [Belickis] can make anything. The wine pairings are impeccable there as well. I like that when you ask them to choose a wine, they don't haul out the most expensive thing in stock.
Bars? Re:Public. It's right there [by Shanik]... Parking at SLU is such a pain, so we go there. I'm the most boring person; I just order bubbles and wine.
Coffee? Hot Cakes in Ballard is the cherry on top. Four o'clock coffee is a ritual: We get the full-on chocolate decadence with vanilla ice cream—it's like a cross between pudding and cake—all with a double shot Americano. I'm really into cake and coffee at 4 p.m.
What shameful food do you love? I just told you about my chocolate cake every day... I also drink wine every single night: I don't know if that's normal or not. This weekend, I was caught at the border for an hour and a half. I made myself dinner in the car: I had the ham, the rosemary bread, the sauerkraut. The only thing missing was the wine, and I came so close to opening that bottle of wine. It would've just been one nice glass.
Specialty store? Apna Bazar in Bellevue: You can get everything Indian there. I can go and see what's new—what ready-to-go mixes are there, what pickles, whatever foods are coming out of India, even if there's a new pressure cooker model. Every home needs to have a pressure cooker.
What's your favorite summertime beverage? I just had it: a lightly sweetened lime soda with a little mint in it at Au Petit Cafe in Vancouver. The lime has to be really, really cold.
What was your first concert? The Osmonds. I'm really dating myself!
First record? Fleetwood Mac, Rumours.
Do you listen to music in the kitchen? No. At Vij's, my staff listen to Sikh morning prayers. If I'm gone, they put on Punjabi music, but I can't work with music in the restaurant.
What do you cook for yourself at home? I've been cooking a lot of Ethiopian stuff, because my staff has been teaching me. Gomen be sega—that's lamb (I use shank with the bone) and greens, with garlic and onions. I fell in love with this, and now I'm putting it on the lunch menu, with a rice pilaf with the colors of the Ethiopian flag: red bell peppers, yellow bell peppers, turmeric, cilantro, jalapeño, and toasted cumin. Everything I love ends up on a menu somewhere.
Current ingredient obsession? Sea asparagus, only because I can't figure out what to do with it. Indian flavors and sea asparagus don't go well together. But I'll keep trying to figure it out.
Favorite condiment? Kimchi—I eat a lot of kimchi with Indian food.
What would you want your last meal to be? A very elementary yet super-popular Indian dish called rajma chawal, which translates into curried kidney beans and rice. This is our cultural equivalent of macaroni and cheese.
What do you love about Seattle? I love how easy it has been for me to make real friends here. I've got a very nice arrangement with my Vancouver-Seattle split.
What do you dislike most about Seattle? It's not at all easy to get around town if you don't own a car or have super leg muscles that can cycle up and down major hills and race with traffic. The traffic is mental, to the point that I'm afraid to live anywhere if I can't walk to work.
This is the first in a series of interviews with great Seattle chefs.