Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Whether you call it “BajaMed,” “Cali-Baja” or something else, the new cuisine of Baja California is a fusion of Baja ingredients, Mexican tradition, European technique and flavors brought to the party by Baja’s Asian immigrants. It is the latter that often comes as the biggest surprise. Perhaps never more so than at Sanvil Baja-Indian Food, half way down a dirt road at the west end of the Valle de Guadalupe in the town of San Antonio de las Minas.
The food at Sanvil reflects the heritage of its executive chef, Surinder Veer Singh Ortega: half Indian, half Mexican. His father left India at 18, working on a cruise ship that ultimately carried him to Ensenada where he met Veer Singh’s mother and proposed to her by pointing to his ring finger. He would ultimately learn Spanish.
Sanvil’s ceviche dorado appetizer is a statement of intent. While raw (or acid-cooked) fish is foreign to Indian cuisine it is an art form in Mexico: ceviche, aguachile, cocteles and the like are ubiquitous wherever Mexico meets the water. With this dish, however, Veer Singh marries the Mexican form with Indian flavors, coconut milk taking the primary supporting role, habanero providing the heat and red onions, peppers, pineapple and green apple rounding out the affair. It is a beautiful dish and one that marries his parents’ two culinary cultures.
Indeed, the name of the restaurant says as much. “Sanvil” is the combination of two Hindi words: santulan , meaning “balance” and vilay, meaning “fusion.” The name, too, is a statement of intent: A fusion between two cuisines and finding the balance of flavors such that one ingredient doesn’t stand out and overpower the others. It is about mutual respect in more than one way.
Sanvil’s curry octopus again shows that fusion and balance in practice. Perfectly tender octopus, ever so slightly charred on the grill and suffused with curry, sits atop a garbanzo bean salad, some micro-greens offering a bit of freshness. It is spicy, yes, but not in the sense of the word where spice equals heat. It is spice that wakes up the palate rather than blows it away.
And that’s a lot of what Sanvil is about: the parallels and contrasts between Indian and Mexican cuisine. Both use heat—sometimes subtly, sometimes powerfully—and both use spices and peppers, toasting them to release their essential oils and fundamental flavors. Where Mexican cuisine uses acid to brighten dishes, though, Indian often uses sweeter spices.
The fusion Veer Singh strives for may best be shown in the dish with which Sanvil took third place in this year’s Sabor de Baja culinary pairing competition: curried chicken liver curry sopes with potato, verdolaga leaves, mango pickle, cherry tomatoes and cilantro micro-greens. It was a perfect combination of Indian flavors and Mexican form. It will be on Sanvil’s next menu.
Often the problems with fusion arise when like and unlike are paired together, the borders being obvious. Here, at Sanvil, Veer Singh manages to bring Indian and Mexican cuisines together without visible lines or seams. It is nearly organic fusion and feels natural. The contrasts are there but the parallels make it work.