n a strange way, Meeru Dhalwala found the beginning of the pandemic relaxing. “It was the first time in 27 years I wasn’t worrying about the restaurant,” she explains, gesturing to the dining room of Vij’s, where she’s drinking a steaming cup of fragrant chai on an unseasonably cold April morning. “Having a restaurant is like having children—some part of your brain is always occupied by thinking about them. But this was out of my hands. My phone wasn’t going to buzz about work at midnight; no one was going to wake me up at 6:00 a.m. I actually slept well.”
It’s understandable that Dhalwala was ready for a break. In 1995, her then-husband Vikram Vij had just opened his first restaurant, a tiny 14-seat space on West Broadway. (Dhalwala and Vij divorced in 2017 but remain friends and business partners.) “He wasn’t doing Indian food yet,” she remembers. “You know those chickens that are splayed out on a spit, rotating around and around in a little container?” Dhalwala had moved from Washington, DC, where she worked in international development, to be with Vij. She had no experience in restaurants, but she jumped in with both feet: running the kitchen at Vij’s and coming up with new recipes that featured rich, complex Indian flavours—including those famed lamb popsicles—and ingredients from local producers.
Running a restaurant described by The New York Times as “easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world” sounds like more than enough to keep any duo busy. But Dhalwala and Vij were also raising two daughters, opening new restaurants—including the beloved Rangoli, which closed early in the pandemic, and Surrey’s beloved My Shanti—and co-authoring cookbooks. A passionate advocate for sustainability, Dhalwala also joined the advisory board of UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems; in 2011, she launched an annual festival Joy of Feeding to raise money for the university’s farm.
All the while, Vij’s remained at the heart of her work and life. But when restaurants closed in March 2020, Dhalwala found herself unoccupied for the first time in years. She discovered binge-watching, devouring the first two seasons of My Brilliant Friend on HBO, and spent time with her daughter, who was home from university due to the lockdown. Soon, though, her mind turned to another idea that had been simmering in the background for years: baby food.
“That became my pandemic project,” Dhalwala says. “I would come into Vij’s, because we were closed, and experiment with different recipes. I would just sit down, close my eyes, and write about all my different experiences that go into baby foods. And then when we reopened, at the end of May, I invited neighbourhood moms to bring their babies in and try the recipes.”
She called her new project My Bambiri, which means “spinning top” in Punjabi. “As a kid, my nickname was Meeri Bambiri,” says Dhalwala. “Because as soon as I could eat, I wanted to eat with people. I was so social, I would just bounce around.” My Bambiri is a natural extension of Dhalwala’s passion for sustainability, which begins at the kitchen table. Ensuring the first foods that babies eat are flavourful, local, and nutritious provides a foundation for healthy eating habits that support community food systems. Her kitchen experiments evolved into four simple recipes: Blueberry and Sunflower Seed, Lentil and Basmati Rice, Beets and Lentils, and Apple and Teff (an ancient grain from Ethiopia).
Dhalwala credits her long-time supplier and friend, Naty King of Hazelmere Organic Farm, with sourcing local producers for My Bambiri. “I’m the queen delegator,” she jokes. “I said, ‘Find me a small B.C. farmer. It doesn’t have to be organic, but it has to be a sustainable farm with beautiful soil.’” To Dhalwala’s delight, King found “a tiny blueberry farm: a little one-person operation with just three acres” to provide the organic blueberries for one of the recipes.
What sets My Bambiri apart from other organic baby food options, according to Dhalwala, is the craft and the quality. “I hand-cooked mine—like, I cooked it myself, stirring each pot to make sure it wouldn’t get overcooked,” she says, laughing. “But really, it’s the ingredients. I made everything so carefully—the Apple and Teff has organic dates, just enough to sweeten it up. And I use Japanese murasaki sweet potatoes, because in my research I found they were the most nutritious.” Every ingredient was carefully chosen. “And here’s the secret,” she offers. “Add a little bit of salt and butter, and you can eat it, too! It’s really good.”
How food is produced is an important part of sustainability, but Dhalwala is equally concerned with the other half of the equation: ensuring that it doesn’t go to waste. “We have virtually zero food waste [at the restaurant],” she says. “My staff are all from India. I grew up in the United States, but my mom and dad were in refugee camps; they grew up with famine. We just don’t waste food here. If we have leftovers, or we made a mistake with a dish, someone takes it home.”
“If I just sell to parents who have high incomes, I haven't accomplished anything.”
To ensure My Bambiri byproducts find a home, too, Dhalwala partnered with Food Stash Foundation: a nonprofit organization located just a few blocks north of Vij’s in Olympic Village. Each month, Food Stash Foundation recovers 70,000 pounds of perishable foods and produce that businesses would otherwise throw away, and redistributes it through local charities, grocery deliveries, and a weekly community market. “That’s food that would otherwise go in the landfill,” says Dhalwala. “When I saw their freezer, it was just full of salmon and chicken. I thought, ‘Gosh, we’re killing the animal, and then we’re just throwing it in the garbage.’” Every Friday, Dhalwala donates leftover My Bambiri products to Food Stash for their pay-what-you-can market.
Dhalwala’s approach with My Bambiri puts community above profits, which is why she decided to try an unusual pricing model. “If I just sell to parents who have high incomes, I haven't accomplished anything. I already run a business for profit,” she explains, gesturing to the restaurant. “So that’s when I came up with income-based pricing.” My Bambiri products are sold in packs of 12, with the option of paying $24, $42, or $60; Dhalwala is taking an honour-system approach of trusting customers to pay what they think is fair.
“And if that income-based model works, maybe others will try it, too,” she muses. “How cool would it be if one day you could come to Vij’s, and you could trust your community enough that somebody making $400,000 a year will pay $60 for those lamb popsicles, and someone making $40,000 will pay $24 for that dish—but we’re all dining together, as equals?”