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Food

Can Global Cuisine Go Local? It’s Complicated

Meeru Dhalwala, co-founder of famed Indian restaurant Vij’s, on the power of food to connect.

Dorothy Woodend 1 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Meeru Dhalwala doesn’t remember when she first came across the 100-Mile Diet, but she does remember thinking that it was an idea whose time had come. She resonated to the call for strengthening the local food system, and for celebrating fresh ingredients grown and processed nearby. For her, it wasn’t just a movement in the making, it reinforced what she was trying to accomplish in her business and in her life.

Dhalwala has operated three successful restaurants (Vij’s, Rangoli and Shanik in Seattle), written cookbooks, created a line of frozen entrées, raised two daughters, and organized events like the Joy of Feeding at the UBC Farm, as well as sitting on the board of the Vancouver Farmers Market.

But food is complicated stuff, and no one knows this better than Dhalwala. When she was younger, she worked on human rights and economic development projects with non-profits and earned a master’s degree in international development studies. Running a restaurant confirmed her perception that making food sustainable is rooted in practical things like the hard costs of operating a business — taking care of her staff, paying rent, taxes, etc.

In other words, for Dhalwala, the 100-Mile Diet is merely, as its authors intended, an ideal, not a prescription. Exhibit A: basmati rice, the core ingredient at the restaurants she helped found. The basmati rice she uses comes from one distinct area in India. As Dhalwala says, “It’s like champagne in France; if it’s not from that region, technically, it’s not champagne.”

In fact, every ingredient that goes into the food she serves has to be carefully considered. Most of the legumes and beans she uses are from Canada — chickpeas from Saskatchewan, for example. But is it better to use field-grown tomatoes from California as opposed to the hot house variety from B.C.? What about lamb for the restaurant’s famous lamb popsicles?

“I’ve done my research, and the carbon footprint of New Zealand lamb is still less than lamb from Canada,” says Dhalwala. That matters, because, as she admits, “Food is my big fat contribution to climate change.” Meaning that some of the far-flung ingredients she uses in her restaurant have created a significant carbon footprint in the way they are cultivated and transported.

Born in India and raised in the U.S., “I come from two different cultures,” says Dhalwala. When Vij’s opened with only 14 seats, she didn’t know that much about cooking. She’d never worked in a restaurant or even bussed tables. But more and more people came. When Vij’s moved to a location on Granville and 11th, the stage was set for massive success, as anyone who ever waited in line can attest. With an all-female kitchen staff, things operated very differently than more male-dominated restaurants — less Hell’s Kitchen Gordon Ramsay-type screaming and more quiet dignity and simply getting the job done without histrionics.

Much of this approach comes down to Dhalwala’s own clear and matter-of-fact communication. She speaks her mind forthrightly and is committed to radical transparency, a policy that extends to her thoughts on the vagaries of the restaurant and food industry.

“Food culture is largely about ambiance and design. Social media has contributed to this,” she says. “The advent of Food TV is also a big factor. Restaurants are renovating every few years. The razor-thin margins [in the industry] aren’t just about the food, they’re also about atmosphere.”

This emphasis on fashion sometimes has the effect of prioritizing cool experiences over the best ingredients, an inversion of values she finds confounding. “Someone can buy Jimmy Choo shoes, but they don’t want to spend money on food.”

On the flipside, there are foodie communities that go in entirely the opposite direction. Dhalwala talks about a seeing a vacation package in the Galapagos that offered an immersion in slow food eating, where a week’s stay cost upwards of $10,000.

“I was just shocked that ‘slow-food’ eating — the way we all should, could, would if all the food politics and economics were just — has now become a luxury tourist attraction. I’m not sure that was the mandate for the slow food movement. I get that there are luxury five-star food trips, but this was particularly marketing ‘slow food’ and eating local in Galapagos.”

What is elitist and exclusionary in both these models is fundamentally at odds with Dhalwala’s purpose with food. She prizes food for its power to build community through sharing.

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Community is at the heart of the original 100-Mile Diet ethos. Creators Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon have said their idea was not to lash people into lonely adherence into an all-or-nothing way of eating, but to celebrate local food and how making it can bring people together.

As Smith says in an interview with her and MacKinnon that started this series, “I often think about how we got invited to speak a lot in the heartland states in America. We spoke to a lot of audiences who would probably be called Republican, and they were responding to different aspects of the book than Democrats were, but they were some of our most receptive fans in the U.S. It made me think that there are ways to overcome the political divide. And that’s an incredibly useful lesson for today.”

“I really appreciate the connection that I have with the people who produce my food,” adds MacKinnon, “some of whom I count as friends.”

Still, Dhalwala points out that if you’re poor and sharing a meal, buying local won’t be a top priority, saving money must be. “My basic, general view regarding the 100-Mile Diet is that while most movements that draw attention to healthy sustainable eating, foraging and purchasing are good and helpful to this cause of food-climate change, I don’t believe this kind of eating lifestyle is one that most people can adopt. Especially immigrants who bring their cuisines with them.”

Smith and MacKinnon might respond, as they have emphasized in the past, that they never set out to advocate for trendy or expensive cuisine. “There are other ways of saving money on local food that people haven’t fully delved into yet,” observed Smith, including “growing some food yourself, cooking with fewer ingredients, preserving foods in season, or just being selective in what you buy locally.”

“The 100-Mile Diet was an experiment,” noted MacKinnon. “It was something we did in an unusually strict manner in order to explore our local food system and how possible it was to live off of it. But we never said in the book or in our talks that people should only ever eat local food. But we really felt strongly that more of us should be able to eat more local food for so many reasons, first and foremost for the pleasure of it.”

At the heart of Dhalwala’s complicated relationship with the local food movement is her effort to connect cultural communities through sharing their distinctive cuisines. On her side is the fact that food is so personal and familiar, conveying comfort and a sense of belonging. But food is also political, sometimes in ways hard to directly address.

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Serving across borders. One among many cooks Meeru Dhalwala helped recruit from different immigrant communities for the Joy of Feeding fundraisers for the UBC Farm, which is itself a local food production showcase.

By way of illustration, she talks about the difficulties in attracting different communities to farmers markets in Vancouver. “I was on the board of Vancouver Farmers Market for six years. I loved this. But despite all our efforts — and with a staff that cared deeply for social justice issues — I was frustrated that immigrants weren’t a part of the shopping fabric.”

The people who attended the markets didn’t reflect the diversity of Vancouver’s population. Perhaps that was because some immigrants considered the offerings too expensive or they didn’t relate to the idea that shopping is an “event.” Maybe they picked up signals they didn’t belong. She admits that her experience of going to farmers markets in Vancouver is very different from other places. “My daughter says she hates the music.”

Still there is something about the act of cooking and eating together that bridges all kinds of cultural differences. A remarkable example of this was Joy of Feeding, an event that Dhalwala organized with Terra Bread’s Mary MacKay for five years. As a fundraiser for the UBC farm, the premise was to invite home cooks to make a favourite recipe and serve it up to more than 700 people.

“I wanted to hold this in a farm setting where sustainably farmed food is grown to make an emotional, triangular connection between whole foods, cultures and cooking. Unless we know what to do with local, unprocessed foods, we will never be able to support and appreciate local farming in any large scale, meaningful way,” said Dhalwala, by way of an earlier mission statement for the event. Basic to the experience: joy.

“Joy doesn’t necessarily have to come from the actual cooking, but it does come from feeding family and friends. The most affordable and healthy way to enjoy local and organic produce is to cook it at home. Feeding your family a home cooked, healthy meal and gathering in one place to eat together is the best way to nourish your loved ones' bodies and emotional well-being.”

At one Joy of Feeding event, a sunny afternoon in June, Dan Mangan played the guitar and sang to clutches of people dotted about on the grass eating spot prawn ceviche, Vietnamese green papaya salad, sweet fry bread, and generally being blissed out. I was there and I recall a sense of everyone being involved and marvelling at the mixture of cultures, people and culinary traditions.

It was a great event but, as Dhalwala points out, working with home cooks to prepare food for upwards of 700 people is labour intensive. When the original team of organizers moved on, she wasn’t able to continue singlehandedly. The memories linger. Especially the pleasures and rewards of finding and inviting people to cook their dishes for the Joy events. Sometimes she’d have to talk them into it. The results, a happy energy to the event, was worth it. She’d enabled a true melange of cultures by applying the kind of good-natured assertiveness that is uncommon in Vancouver. That’s a Dhalwala specialty. She says it’s rooted in her Indian heritage.

“There is no word for privacy in the Hindi language,” she explains, “nor is there really a word for loneliness.” Which is why Meeru Dhalwala uses a single word to sum up her approach to food, business, life: “inclusiveness.”

Inclusiveness in preparing food, she says, means not only getting various people involved but also guides how food is procured — ideally, from a local source, but not necessarily. When she looks for ingredients she starts by buying “as many as possible from B.C. But not 100 miles and not strictly.”

No budging, for sure, on the basmati rice.

Next in this series, a dozen local food heroes share what they’ve learned from the pandemic.  [Tyee]

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