On my last trip to India, I arranged to visit one of the country's top wineries. Sula Vineyards in Nashik (about a three-hour train ride from Mumbai) is the brainchild of Rajeev Samant, who I met when he dined at my restaurant in Vancouver. I was proud of the fact that he had gone back to his roots and started a vineyard from scratch, investing in an area that most Indians would scoff at - including my father.
I remember telling my father 14 years ago, as we drank whisky and contemplated our restaurant, that with the Indian diaspora, members of the middle to upper class were going to start drinking wine. He laughed at me and said in a strong Bombay accent, "All that we Indians drink is strong whisky - rest is nothing." I told him that he was wrong, and the day was going to come very soon that somebody would open an Indian winery.
And there I was in 2007, going to Sula to taste and smell sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
I was nervous: I had been to grand, well-run wineries in Europe and North America. But as a proud Indian, I was not going to dis the wine even if I did not like it - that is my patriotism to the country of my birth.
Once at the winery I ran through the vineyard, tasting the grapes, looking at the different vines. I am not an oenologist so I had no clue about the plants, but the varietal name at the end of each row was enough to make me proud.
Mr. Samant hosted us at his house. I chatted about the food with his chef, who had been there for more than 30 years. He explained he usually cooks simple dals and root vegetables, which are easily available. That night he cooked a dinner that rivalled any James Beard House dinner in terms of flavour. We paired the food with Sula wines and Mr. Samant gave us some real insights into the process.
The next day I saw the fermentation room and the barrel-aging room. It looked like a well-run winery, albeit at an early stage, but the love and the passion was clearly there.
My favourite moment came in the tasting room. Two older farmers in white dhoti-kurtas (traditional Indian garb) sat drinking wine, but as if it were whisky. I went over and chatted, and showed them the proper way to handle the glass. I found out that they were the grape growers, and they'd had no idea why they were growing the vines until they came to the tasting room for the first time to see what their bounty had produced: They were astonished to find out that the grapes could turn into wine.
I left convinced that premium winemaking is going to happen in India. It might take a generation or two (after all, the Old World has been making wines for centuries), so I think it will not be in my lifetime. But if I make it to 80, I would like to have a glass of Sula red, some dal and roti as my last supper.
In the meantime, I'll content myself with a California Barbera with this dish of eggplant, tomato and green onion curry. It's the kind of flavourful cooking Mr. Samant's chef excels at.
EGGPLANT, TOMATO AND GREEN ONION CURRY
7 ounces green onions (about 8 stalks)
1 cup plain yogurt, stirred
1 tablespoon Mexican chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
21/2 teaspoons salt
1 eggplant, skin on, in 1-inch cubes
2 cups chopped tomatoes (2 large)
1/2 cup canola oil
Wash the green onions. Chop the white parts in rounds ¼-inch long. Remove and discard the hollow green parts. Chop the remaining solid green parts in rounds ¾-inch long. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine yogurt, chili powder, turmeric, cayenne and salt. Add the eggplant, tomatoes and onions and stir well to make sure the vegetables are well covered in the curry mixture.
In a shallow, heavy pan, heat oil on medium-high for 45 seconds. Pour the curry into the pan and stir well. Sauté for about three minutes, reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through the cooking. Turn off the heat and stir once more. Remove the lid if you are not going to serve the curry immediately, or the eggplant will become too mushy.
To serve, ladle the curry into six bowls or plates. If serving with another curry, serve this one in a bowl, so that it doesn't "run" on the plate. Serves 6.
Vikram Vij is owner and chef of Vij's in Vancouver.