AS we drove toward the Punjabi Market — a densely packed collection of sari shops and Indian sweets stores south of downtown Vancouver — a local radio station helped get my husband, son and me primed for a weekend of Indian feasting. The winter sky was Windex blue and the air was near freezing, but inside the warm car, the speakers bounced with track after track of clubby Indian music.
This being Vancouver, however, just before we parked, the station switched over to a Mandarin talk show. Such a mashup of Asian cultures is par for the course in British Columbia's hub. Because of its huge Chinese immigrant population, Vancouver has earned its reputation as one of the continent's best places for Chinese food, but as with the radio station, that reputation can overshadow other faces of ethnic Vancouver.
On this visit, we had India on our minds. We set off to find innovative Indian food that strays beyond the boilerplate menus of butter chicken and lamb korma at so many Indian restaurants, in particular to see if the success of Vij's — the contemporary Indian restaurant that has become internationally famous — had spawned a modern-Indian movement, a kind of culinary parallel to the bhangra music I heard on that radio station.
Vancouver, with its vital mix of cultures, seems the perfect breeding ground for such cuisine. After all, Lizzie Collingham's insightful book "Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors" (Oxford University Press) reminds us that the food of India and its diasporas is at its core heterodox, influenced by the tastes of the Moguls, Portuguese, Chinese and British, who both distorted Indian food and globalized it. The first immigrants — almost all of them Sikh and Punjabi — arrived in British Columbia at the turn of the 20th century, after members of the empire's Indian troops had visited the area on their return trip from the Queen's 1887 Diamond Jubilee.
Vij's was a mixed bag: the appetizers were extraordinary, the entrees were surprisingly undistinguished.
Will check out Chutney Villa tonight.
Chutney Villa was friendly, authentic, good but not exceptional.