The Cheat: The Greens Party

There was a party of dudes from Montana sitting at a table in Vij’s in Vancouver, British Columbia, getting ready to graze. They were businessmen, in the city for a conference, and the hotel had sent them out to South Granville Street to wait for a table, for Vij’s takes no reservations and never has.

The men sat in the bar and had a few beers, and after a table opened they took it and looked at the menu and ordered, each of them asking for a variation on the same theme: some mutton kebabs to start, the beef tenderloin after; the mutton kebabs to start, the lamb Popsicles after.

Their waitress was Meeru Dhalwala, who is also the chef at Vij’s and, with her husband, Vikram Vij, an owner of the restaurant. At that point she had spent more than a decade running the kitchen at Vij’s — she arrived in 1995 — but she had never worked in the dining room, interacting with customers, dealing with American men ordering meat.

Dhalwala took the orders and paused, then asked the men if they wanted any vegetables. They said no, almost instantaneously. “But you’ve ordered meat on meat,” she said. There was a collective shrug. They were from Montana.

Dhalwala stared at them. She was in a kind of shock. Vij’s is at once an excellent restaurant and a curious one, Indian without being doctrinaire about it, utopian without being political. No men work in the kitchen at Vij’s: 54 women, with no turnover save for during maternity leaves. No one, Dhalwala has said, has ever been fired. She feels a deep and important connection to both the food she makes and the business that she and her husband run. These boys from Montana were freaking her out.

From an e-mail she sent me: “I told them that as the creator of the food they were about to eat, I could not in good faith give them what they wanted and that they had to order some fiber and vitamins for their dinner. They were as dumbfounded as I was. ‘But we don’t like vegetables,’ they said. So I made a deal with them that I would choose a large plate of a side vegetable, and if they didn’t like it, I would pay for their dinner.”

The coconut kale we are cooking this weekend was that dish, and the Montana men paid for it happily. They complimented Dhalwala on their way out the door: Good vegetables! The leaves are rich and fiery, sweet and salty all at once. Important to the Montanans: they taste as if cut through with blood and fat, as if they were steak and fries combined. The grilling softens the texture of the kale without overcooking it or removing its essential structure — or the mild bitterness of the leaves — while the marinade of coconut milk, cayenne, salt and lemon juice balances out the flavors, caramelizing in the heat.

Made over a charcoal fire or even in a wickedly hot pan, it becomes a dish of uncommon flavor, the sort of thing you could eat on its own, with only a mound of basmati rice for contrast.

But you know, why would you? Here in America, after all, we will always be from Montana somehow.

At Vij’s, Dhalwala bathes grilled lamb chops — little meat Popsicles taken off the rack — in a rich, creamy fenugreek curry and serves them with turmeric-hued potatoes. This is a very, very good dish. But we are cheating here, Sunday cooks on the run. We are grilling kale, and perhaps for the first time. So let us keep things simple. To highlight the flavor of the greens, we will embrace austerity for our lamb, grilling it off under nothing but a garlic rub and showers of salt and freshly ground pepper. (You can sear the meat on the stovetop as well, in a cast-iron pan, and finish it in a hot oven.)

Then, bouncing back toward complicated flavors once more, we have a simple chickpea curry that Dhalwala cooks with star anise and chopped dates, which combine into an autumnal darkness that lingers on the tongue. Save for the business of messing around with black cardamom (and finding the black cardamom — you can always head to penzeys.com, or Amazon), it takes only a matter of moments to assemble the ingredients and cook, allowing some time at the end of the process for the flavors to meld together in the pot.

Back to Dhalwala again. She came to professional cooking late, after a career in nongovernmental organizations, the dance and heartache of third-world development. To her, cooking is a spiritual act, a simple one. You can taste this in every dish she serves. “There is an inner soul of cooking that is for nurturing and community,” she wrote to me, “and all my recipes stem from this place.”

So if you don’t like the lamb chops, that is on me.

Sam Sifton, New York Times

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Full article and photos: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/magazine/07food-t-000.html