As chef, cofounder, and co-owner of Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants, Meeru Dhalwala is one of the most successful women in the city’s food scene. Overseeing kitchens staffed entirely by women, all immigrants—a rarity—Dhalwala has coauthored three cookbooks with her former spouse, Vikram Vij, with whom she has two grown daughters. She created Joy of Feeding, a food festival and fundraiser for the UBC Farm. A working mom, entrepreneur, and immigrant, she’s a role model for women. And Dhalwala is just getting started on some of the most important work of her life.
“Careerwise and community-wise, this is my time,” Dhalwala says in a phone interview. She’s calling from Toronto, where she’s doing TV for the first time. It’s food-related, of course, but she can’t say any more than that, not even to her 20-year-old daughter, who’s studying physiology and immunology at the University of Toronto and with whom she has dinner every night after taping. (Her 23-year-old daughter recently graduated from McGill University with a degree in environmental science.) “I love my life right now.”
Two organizations in particular have Dhalwala’s attention these days, at least when she’s not in the kitchen at Vij’s or Rangoli, creating recipes, cooking, working, talking, and laughing with her team. One is UBC’s faculty of land and food systems, which develops solutions for urgent global issues related to human health and sustainable food supply. With a keen interest in the climate crisis, Dhalwala is a member of its faculty advisory board. The other is MOSAIC, a registered charity that helps immigrant, refugee, and migrant communities throughout B.C. She has joined its board of directors, knowing firsthand what it’s like to be a newcomer.
Born in India, Dhalwala moved to Washington, D.C. as a child and came to Vancouver at age 30. Her mother and father were from Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Even here in Canada, she’s routinely asked where she’s from. It’s not that she minds the question, but she admits that it can sometimes make a person feel like they don’t quite belong. Food, she says, is a springboard to connecting people.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of food and cooking in terms of our personal sense of community and belonging,” Dhalwala says. “Both my parents were refugees in the 1947 War of Partition. My dad became an orphan and lived in the refugee camps of old Delhi for nine years. He and my mom were so isolated and depressed when they moved to the U.S. in 1969, but they did it because they wanted safety and all the options for their children that the U.S. was promising. The first thing my parents did when they arrived is figure out where the grocery store was for tea, milk, and sugar—chai—onion, garlic, oil, and whatever foods they could afford. Mom cooked makeshift meals for us on an electric plate. While we ate, they would suspend their fears of new arrival and laugh at how crappy yet expensive the vegetables were in America and how horrible their chapatis were—Wonder Bread.
“If there’s one thing I definitely know about immigrants, it’s that they come with the culture of their cuisine,” she adds. “There’s so much pride to it.”
Dhalwala may be just as busy as ever, but none of it feels like work, she says, because she loves what she does. On October 7, she’ll be inducted into the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame. She’s had to make tough decisions getting to this point. Dhalwala closed her Seattle restaurant, Shanik, after two-and-a-half years, for example, and not because it wasn’t successful; in fact, it was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for best new restaurant in the U.S. the year after it opened. (It was staffed by Ethiopian and Indian refugees, all women.) But travelling regularly between Vancouver and Seattle after her marriage ended was simply too much, and she was missing her family and community. (She and Vij remain very close friends and business partners.)
“I call myself a feminist, and if someone like myself can’t make quality-of-life decisions, who can?” she says. “My mom just died at home with me and my girls on July 31st, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her life and how she carried it as an immigrant, woman, mother, wife, and politically active citizen. She told me that ‘mother’ was her most important.”