The establishment sits on an unassuming block, primarily a residential street if you approach it from the east traveling up West 11th Avenue. Approach it directly off of Granville Street, the main thoroughfare of Vancouver’s tony South Granville district, and there is an immediate call to action of the olfactory receptors. Predominant curry scents can be detected for near blocks of space and time when strolling past traditional Indian restaurants but this is not typical subcontinent fare; this is Vij’s. This is where a subtle perfume of spices that eventually consummate with rich velvety sauces in the dishes arriving at your table, produce succulent aromas that permeate this little corner of edible heaven. With a no reservation policy, the new generation of culinary cueing often begets the question “is it worth the wait?” Inevitably, the response is a resounding “yes!” but there is also irresistible temptations next door to discover at Rangoli - an incarnation where Vij’s finds a west-coast vibe.
The mere sight of Rangoli opening in 2004 brought about heart palpitations that none other than Vij’s cuisine could merit. Spice alchemist Vikram Vij, whose mastery is combining Indian spices and techniques with local seasonal ingredients to create unparalleled contemporary cuisine, triumphs again with ingenuity, flavor, and innovation. True, Rangoli in its entirety cannot be overlooked – a creation that is part diner, part market, and all illustriously Vij’s. The diner serves a selection of remarkable dishes for lunch (all originally developed at the famed restaurant next door) to be eaten in the funky but quaint dining area or brought back to the office to taunt envious co-workers, but it’s the packaged meals that define the epitome of habit-forming gourmet-to-go. “I wanted to elevate Indian cuisine, the scene and the culture by showcasing our foods,” says Chef Vikram Vij, “but in a way that people could take it home and prepare it on their own time. The concept is something similar to how you make pasta – you don’t really make it, you boil it but it makes you feel like you had something to do with it. I didn’t want to introduce something like a pizza style where you order it, it comes in a box, you open it, eat it and then throw the box away.” The meals at Rangoli come in 300g “boil-a-bag” packages designed for reheating by simply submersing the bag in boiling water (they can also be microwaved or reheated in a saucepan). “When you take it home and heat it up yourself, there is an awareness of Indian cuisine and the spices and you can be fascinated by what is happening. You get a taste of what we do and you can even add a bit something on your own. I wanted to push the limit of Indian cuisine to show how Indian food can be so delicious even made at home.”
Working directly with the packaging industry, a “very helpful” bunch, the Vij’s team took to the task of researching a number of companies and returning with an array of samples. Not “a person who just copies things” Chef Vij found the right creative cord with an aluminum-packaging approach. Using it as a base, the team set off to design one that would be both functionally efficient and visually appealing perched on the shelves inside the row of refrigerators and freezers. “Rangoli started in 2001 but actually opened in 2004, most of those 3 years were spent doing research.” Has Chef Vij single-handedly brought sous-vide, a culinary means to perfection used by Michelin-starred restaurants, to homes throughout the greater Vancouver area? Not quite, as the sous vide-style actually expels all of the air when the food is sealed in vacuumed-laminated plastic pouches (which are then heat treated by controlled cooking and then reheated for serving after a period of chilled storage). However, innovation still prevails with the Rangoli aluminum packaging, because wherever you are, whatever the time, you can still have a Vij’s experience.
Made fresh on the premise, available refrigerated or frozen, Rangoli currently offers 17 meals and a 3 pack of chutneys. “We don’t rotate the meals that are available we just work on adding more to the list,” Chef Vij says, “so that every shelf will have a different curry on it.” Each package is the equivalent of one meal per se – portion control is somewhat inherent. “The package itself isn’t meant to be a meal in the sense of say a sandwich - so if two people are eating you would get 2 bags and serve them with rice and naan.” There is no menu suggestions posted nor is the bright colored labels a color-coding of sorts but the packages are definitely designed to complement each other. The in-store product consultants are there to help you select the right dishes, “we ask the customers what they feel like having,” Chef Vij says, “and we inquire about their styles, what they usually order when they go out to eat Indian food and then we guide them in the right direction. If a customer chooses a spicy pork, then they can take a milder dahl.” You will find savory chicken, lamb, pork, beef, and salmon dishes like Kanjoli Chicken Curry, Raw Sugar, Garlic & Garam Masala Beef Curry, and Mother In-law’s Pork Curry, all varying in degrees on the spice scale, and a hearty selection of vegetable and dahl dishes to choose from, a number that has grown considerably since Rangoli’s inception as a result of both increased demand and the need to offer variety.
“The demand has definitely gone up – it started at 50,60,70 bags a day and now it’s 120-130 bags a day,” Chef Vij says, “and because 3 years have gone by we couldn’t just offer the same chicken dish. You need to bring new ones in to keep people interested and coming back otherwise they will go somewhere else to get butter chicken for example. We’ll grow to 20-25 products and go national with that.” Yes, you read it correctly - national! “When I grow I will know these are fail safe dishes. My goal is to go national, actually to be all over North America as far as food packages are concerned, but I am not going to flood the market by letting someone else to do it in mass quantities. I want to be everywhere, personally managing the growth – it is a slower process but a surer one to retain the integrity and quality of the product.”
“Gourmet-to-go” as delectable as Rangoli’s could only be cause for inspiration, a palate broadening appreciation for creating dishes like these every once in a while to call your own. Indian cuisine is indeed labour intensive, but there is no sense denying yourself the pleasure of savoring this incredible cuisine because you cannot afford the time to make it from scratch. You can meet it half-way when the urge arises, in the final minutes before a dish is served, add your signature to it – even a small touch, like a garnish to finalize it. In fact two of the packaged meals at Rangoli contain only curries, there are no meat, fish, or vegetables in the ingredients because they were created with the intent of having the customer add their own – nothing ventured, nothing gained. The Rangoli market also sells a selection of spices that are hand-sifted, roasted, and ground on the premise – the same spices Rangoli and Vij’s uses to make their phenomenal dishes. Soon we’ll be able to use those spices for the recipes found in the Vij’s cookbook scheduled for release this September. You don’t often need another excuse to visit our beautiful west-coast city, however if your Aeroplan points have run dry, you will have to keep any eminent cravings and uncontrollable body twitches at bay until Rangoli arrives at a chilled storage facility near you. Chef Vij - the sooner the better!