Dining with the Rajas

October 23, 2009

World-renowned chef savours a chance to give back

by Janet Collins

Vikram Vij

Vikram Vij says he will be temporarily missing from the kitchen of what the New York Times calls one of the finest Indian restaurants in the world; but he’ll be in good company, and all for a good cause.

Vij is set to embark upon a culinary adventure in rural Rajasthan, where he will delight in authentic regional cuisine with fellow travelers, villagers and kings. The Royal Heritage Cuisine Tour of Rajasthan with Vikram Vij is the first in a series of tours organized by the BC Cancer Foundation.

The subcontinent’s cuisine will be familiar to the amiable Vij, who is co-owner (along with his wife and fellow chef Meeru Dhalwala) of Vancouver’s two internationally lauded Indian restaurants – upscale Vij’s and the more casual neighbouring Rangoli. The travel series will provide an opportunity to bring long-overdue recognition to Vij’s culinary roots while raising research funds to help eradicate a disease that affects countless individuals worldwide. Impowerage caught up to Vij before the sold-out tour kicks off in November:

JC: Tell me about your upcoming trip to India.

VV: I grew up in India and always thought it was the largest democracy of food. For many years I’ve wanted to travel to the different regions of the country learning about the different cooking styles and traditions, and incorporate them into our own restaurants. In November, I’ll finally have that chance.

JC: This isn’t a trip you’re doing by yourself, however.

VV: No, it’s a collaborative effort. Indus Travels asked if I would be part of a culinary tour of Rajasthan that would be developed as a fundraiser for the BC Cancer Agency. So I see this as a chance to give back to the country that gave so much to me – it’s where I was born, where I grew up, where my family is from, and also the source of my cooking inspiration. For me, it will be like coming full circle, the full chakara. It will be like saying “thanks” to your mother for giving you milk – in India, land equals mother. It’s also a chance to help find a cure for cancer.

JC: Why the interest in cancer research?

VV: It seems everyone is affected by cancer in some way. In my own family, my grandfather and grandmother were affected by different cancers. It’s a terrible disease. I hope researchers find a cure soon, and if I can help them out in some way like helping to raise some money, that’s great.

JC: So guiding this tour sounds like a perfect fit in more ways than one.

VV: Yes, but I am not going as a tour guide. I’ll be going as a student like everyone else in the group. The only difference will be that, as a chef, I might be able to help interpret the language and terminology, and perhaps ask some specific questions about the ingredients and techniques. As a chef I have to keep learning every day, to keep broadening my horizons.

JC: The tour brochure indicates you’ll be visiting some of the royal kitchens in the northeast of India, and staying in heritage palaces and forts. So this will be a luxury-focused experience where tour participants will be experiencing the homes and cuisines of the maharajas?

VV: We won’t just be visiting high-level chefs. We’ll be meeting some people who cook for royalty, but also go to remote villages and visit home cooks who do everyday cooking – the people who don’t get any accolades for their important contributions to the culinary traditions of the region. India doesn’t often get the accolades it deserves, but the cooking is as complex as any French or Italian cuisine.

JC: Have you any experience with Rajasthani cooking?

VV: We already have one dish, Rajasthani goat meat, on our menu. We’ve learned a lot from that, but want to add more flavours from the region. And from other regions.

JC: Other regions? Does that mean there will be other tours like this in the future?

VV: We – Indus Travel, the BC Cancer Agency, and I – are already planning a trip to another area of India next year, so this may be an annual thing.

The inspiration behind the trip was a fundraising opportunity for the BC Cancer Foundation. Nick Locke, senior vice-president of development for the BC Cancer Foundation is excited about working with Vikram Vij on this collaborative tour project.

“It’s a very unique fundraiser,” says Locke. “We’ve raffled off trips in the past, but we’ve never participated in a tour in this way. It’s a very different type of cause marketing.”

The Foundation’s primary focus is non-specific cancer research. “As you may have heard, our researchers have recently made significant strides by decoding the DNA sequence of metastatic lobular breast cancer tumours, which accounts for about 10 percent of all breast cancers,” says Locke. “That information will help us better understand how cancer begins and spreads which will help our ability to develop new breast cancer treatments and therapies. Some day we hope to be able to do the same with other types of cancers.”

This year’s culinary tour with Vikram Vij may be sold out, but plans are underway for a tour of another region of India next year. To wet your travel tastebuds, check out the itinerary for this year’s tour.

For information about next year’s tour, contact Raju Banerjee of Vancouver-based Indus Travels at 604-279-8794 or email raju@industravels.com

For more information about cancer research funding opportunities, check out the BC Cancer Foundations website at www.bccancerfoundation.com or the Canadian Cancer Society at www.cancer.ca or the Canadian Cancer Society at www.cancer.ca

About the Author:Janet Collins is a freelance writer/editor based in Sechelt, BC. A self-taught cook and a certified Spanish wine educator, she writes about all things culinary in addition to architecture, design and travel.

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