With Urban Tadka, Vancouver chefs focus on Awadhi cuisine

Known as "royal cuisine", food from the historic Awadh region in India is one of the country's oldest

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      Meet Tushar Tondvalkar and Evan Elman, the cofounders of Vancouver’s Urban Tadka: they’re the first chefs locally—and possibly nationally—to specialize in Awadhi cuisine.

      Awadh was a historic region of northern India, comprising the city of Lucknow, now the capital of Uttar Pradesh state. While many Indian restaurants in Canada have Awadhi dishes on their menu (such as korma, in which the main ingredient is marinated in yogurt and spices), Urban Tadka, a ghost kitchen operating out of Coho Commissary, is the only outlet in Canada to the pair’s knowledge that’s squarely focused on what’s also known as “royal cuisine”.

      “Awadhi cuisine is one of the oldest in India,” says Tondvalkar, who came to Vancouver from India via Toronto seven years ago. “It started before the colonization by the East India Company—England—when the Mughals invaded India. It began initially because the Mughals did not enjoy the local cuisine as much and brought in cooks from Persia. They combined Persian methods of cooking with local spices, and thus Awadhi cuisine was born.”

      Tondvalkar grew up eating Awadhi cuisine, which is now considered street food in India. He recalls Ramadan during his youth, when he and his friends would go to Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road, which is famous for the style, to devour so many delicious dishes. Last year, he travelled to northern India, where he discovered that different cities and states have their own versions of classic dishes. He learned to cook from locals in Lucknow, using recipes that had been passed down for generations, and in Delhi he ate at a restaurant called Karim’s, which was established in 1913. “This was seriously a cool experience because the same family has owned the restaurant since it opened,” he says. “The first owner used to work in the kitchen of the Mughal king, so that was an enlightening experience.”

      Examples of the kinds of items Urban Tadka creates are Jackfruit Salan, the tree-borne fruit cooked in house curry and garam masala; Murgh Mussallam, chicken legs cooked in onion-almond paste and house-made ginger-garlic masala; and Nalli Nihari, which is goat shank cooked in fried onion, ghee, and whole garam masala.

      “Since this was primarily the food created for the Mughal empire and its royalty, the food is rich in flavour,” Tondvalkar tells the Straight. “Meats are marinated in yogurt, slow-cooked over charcoal grills. All the gravies are cooked at a lower temperature for an extended period to allow for all the flavour to build.

      “They cooked with a lot of expensive ingredients like saffron, cashews, and almonds,” he adds. “At Urban Tadka, we wanted to bring this very authentic and real experience to Vancouver, so we also use these ingredients so there is no compromise on quality or flavour.”

      Urban Tadka cofounders Evan Elman (left) and Tushar Tondvalkar operate their business out of Coho Commissary.
      Urban Tadka.

      Tondvalkar, who previously worked at Mumbai Local, met Elman, a chef who runs Vancouver Private Dining, via Instagram. The two hit it off. Tondvalkar began cooking private dinners with Elman last fall and winter and was about to launch his own catering company, called Indian Pantry. After Elman decided to move into Coho Commissary, the two opted to combine forces and rent a larger kitchen space together, since they use similar equipment. They launched Urban Tadka to supplement the cost of their rent. What they didn’t expect was that one month later, COVID-19 would hit, and Urban Tadka would be their only source of revenue.

      With Elman, a Massachusetts native mainly handling behind-the-scenes operations, and Tondvalkar directing all things culinary, Urban Tadka uses traditional Awadhi techniques such as dum cooking, which involves sealing a pot to allow meat to steam and cook at the same time. The company takes its name from the term for an Indian tempering technique in which whole or ground spices are briefly roasted in oil or ghee to extract their flavour and aroma.

      While sourcing fresh foods locally, the two get their spices straight from India. “Each gravy has a specific spice mix that we roast and grind in-house, which is where most of the flavour comes from,” Tondvalkar says.

      See urbantadkayvr.com/ for information on delivery and pickup as well as forthcoming retail products.