November 24th, 2016/ BY Gurvinder Bhatia

Meet the man changing our view on wine and Indian cuisine… for the better

Remarkably, there are still those who believe that you can’t pair wine with Indian food. And not just consumers, but respected wine industry professionals, including the three wine and food writers from New York with whom I had dinner at Vikram Vij’s My Shanti restaurant in South Surrey, BC.

Perhaps it’s because most Asian cuisines evolved in the absence of domestic wine cultures. Or, maybe the exotic, multi-faceted and distinctive flavours of spices such as cardamom, coriander and turmeric, unfamiliar to the European and North American palates when first introduced to these nations, have created a perception that they are beyond the realm of marrying with wine. Fear of failure (in achieving a decent pairing) results in taking the easy way out … beer.

Thankfully, opinions are changing (the New York wine writers were complete converts by the end of our dinner). The growing popularity of Indian cuisine in North America and Europe has helped. As has the emergence of a growing and evolving wine culture in India. India’s population of 1.2 billion encompasses a middle class of 500 million people and the top one percent of income earners possess an inordinate amount of wealth. Interest in wine is growing rapidly, which naturally leads to greater experimentation in marrying with the cuisine. Within 20 years, in my opinion, India will be the largest and most significant wine market in the world (but that’s a subject for a future column).

The individual most responsible in Canada for the increased acceptance of the marriage of wine with Indian cuisine may be Vancouver-based Chef Vikram Vij. Vij, a certified sommelier, immigrated to Canada in the late 1980s from India via culinary school in Austria. He worked at Bishops and Rain City Grill, two restaurants at which, as Vij states, “wine was always a focus.”



When he opened his own restaurant, Vij’s, in 1994, he wanted people to get used to drinking wine with Indian cuisine. The wine list was small (five whites, five reds and one rosé) and all wines were priced the same. The list was small due to a lack of space and the fact that Vij “didn’t have any money.” All the wines were priced the same because he didn’t want his customers to select wines based on price, but instead on the style they wanted to drink. His mark-up was relatively small compared to most restaurants since he wanted to encourage people to drink wine with the food.

Vij attributes one of the turning points in the public’s willingness to give wine with Indian food a try to a column by Vancouver Sun wine writer Anthony Gismondi suggesting wine pairings with dishes from Vij’s restaurant. He noticed an immediate difference in the attitude of diners as the column “gave people the sense that pairing wine with Indian food was all right and something to try.”

Supporting local has always been important to Vij. His culinary philosophy is to use traditional Indian spices, flavours and techniques with locally-sourced meats, seafood and produce. This philosophy extends to his support of the BC wine industry.

Early on, Vij connected with BC wineries such as Kettle Valley, Poplar Grove and Blue Mountain. He worked with them to put many of their limited production wines on his wine list. This led to the wineries requesting to be paired with Vij’s for the many food and wine shows held annually in Vancouver. Vij sees these events as the catalyst for the numerous wine and food pairing events and winemakers’ dinners that have raised the profile of serving wine with Indian cuisine.

Vij’s desire to support local resulted in an all-BC wine list for his My Shanti restaurant. For Vij, My Shanti is simply an extension of Vij’s with the same “love and attention” devoted to all aspects of the food, beverage, décor and customer experience. My Shanti is a reflection of Vij’s travels throughout India and the diversity of the country’s cuisine whether served at home, in a restaurant or at the many street food stands. I love the food and experience at Vij’s, but quite frankly, eating at My Shanti takes me back to the flavours of my aunties’ homes in Delhi and eating at the street food stands with my cousins in Calcutta. And the all-BC wine list totally works.

It certainly helps that due to our cool climate conditions, Canadian wines, in general, tend to stylistically be a great match with Indian cuisine. Fresh, elegant and possessing natural acidity, quality, well balanced Canadian wines have a natural affinity for any cuisine. And while Vij is commonly heard to say “drink what you feel like drinking” when asked what styles of wines tend to pair best with his cuisine, his wine director Mike Bernardo advises to stay away from wines that are heavily oaked, overly tannic and excessively alcoholic as they will clash with the spices and accentuate the heat. In fact, heavily oaked, overly tannic and excessively alcoholic wines are not good food wines in general, regardless of the type of cuisine.

Pairing wine with Indian cuisine really is no different from pairing with any other style of food. Consider flavours, weight and texture and look for wines that are well balanced. It is also important to dispel the notion that all Indian food is exceedingly spicy-hot. Spice doesn’t just translate to heat, more often it translates to flavour. Also, because of religion, geography and history, Indian cuisine is very diverse and regional, from tandoori dishes in the north to the spicy vindaloos of the south.

The individual most responsible in Canada for the increased acceptance of the marriage of wine with Indian cuisine may be Vancouver-based Chef Vikram Vij.



Bernardo admittedly had very little knowledge or experience with Indian cuisine “beyond late-night eating after work while living in Scotland” when he first started to work for Vij as a server some 14 years ago. But his interest grew and, as Vij describes, “Mike’s love of wine developed to where he now has 10 times the knowledge I have.”

Vij’s approach to staff training seems to have played a significant part, particularly early on when serving wine with Indian food was largely non-existent. At the end of each night, staff were able to eat any dish they wanted off the menu and have a glass of wine. This allowed the staff to experiment by trying different wines with the various dishes, become familiar and comfortable with the combinations and share their own experiences with the diners. Vij believes that this approach was much more effective than holding staff wine seminars as instead of simply regurgitating the information to their customers, the servers approach was much more genuine and sincere. Not surprisingly, wine sales increased immediately.

Bernardo expands on this philosophy by finding out what style of wine customers generally drink and suggesting something similar, but outside what they might be used to, in order to achieve a better pairing with the food. For example, if a customer wants an oaky Chardonnay (which would not pair well with the cuisine), Bernardo’s go-to suggestion is a single vineyard, lightly oaked Grüner Veltliner from Austria. If the customer is unsure, he suggests that they try it and offers to find them something else and “drink this one” himself if they are not happy with it. According to Bernardo, “so far no one has given it back.”

Vij’s success has led to Indian restaurants across Canada (and beyond) to focus on building wine programs that complement the cuisine. Vij is constantly traveling, participating in culinary festivals and collaborative dinners to not just spread the gospel of Indian cuisine, but to help people understand that, with respect to wine, it shouldn’t be treated differently than any other style of food. His engaging, genuine, energetic, humble and warm enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring.

The next evolution, explains Vij, will be to focus on the regionality of Indian cuisine and help people to recognize the differences between the dishes from the various regions. But he doesn’t stop there. Vij’s desire is to match the terroir of the region inspiring a dish with the wines from a region possessing a complimentary terroir.

It’s difficult to imagine a better ambassador to dispel the “wine can’t pair with Indian food” myth.



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