By day, Vijitha Shyam is a molecular biologist working on clinical trials to improve public wellness and health. Come evening, she transforms into a passionate home chef, spending hours cooking, writing and photographing recipes new and old for her blog Spices and Aroma.
Vijitha joined Feastly earlier this year, with the mission to share her authentic Indian cooking at pop-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since her first dinner, she’s taught curious eaters from all walks of life about the history and stories behind her culture’s culinary traditions. This past summer she successfully hosted a 28-course Indian Wedding Feast, showcasing classic South Indian recipes and dishes, all while donning a beautiful dress of traditional wedding garb.
Her upcoming pop-up is a 5-course South Indian Tasting Menu on July 11th, check out the menu here. We sat down with Vijitha one sunny afternoon to chat about how she does it all.
1. What is food to you?
I grew up in a household that believed in the concept of Ayurveda where food is medicine. I cook with spices that heal and soothe our mind and soul. So food to me is medicine! I have two kids and we live in the US so food has become a medium to teach them our culture, our dishes and our traditions.
2. How and when did cooking come into your life?
I am a foodie and I love good food. I grew up watching my achi (grandmother) and amma (mother) cook in the kitchen. I started to cook in 2006 during my grad school in England. I did my masters in molecular medicine and after a long day in lab, cooking helped me relax. As a student, eating out everyday wasn’t financially sustainable so I started to make simple Indian dishes with a pressure cooker and few spices that my mom packed for me.
3. Who is your food role model?
I started my own food blog, Spices and Aroma, in 2008 to document my mother’s and grandmother’s family recipes. My achi, amma and mother-in-law are my food gurus.
4. What do you love about hosting with Feastly?
I wanted to share the cuisine I grew up eating with other foodies in the Bay Area. I want people to know that there is more to Indian food than just naan, saag, samosa and chicken tikka masala. I come from the Southern-most part of Indian where rice, coconuts, curry leaves and tamarind are popular. Feastly has created a beautiful platform for me to host my meals to much wider audience. I’ve been able to meet guests who love food as much as I do and who are adventurous to try new cuisine.
5. What are you cooking goals/dreams right now? And in the long run?
Currently I want to continue hosting pop-ups and private meals across the Bay Area using sustainable and organic ingredients to support local farmers. I also want to write e-books on South Indian recipes and continue growing my food blog. In the long run, I see myself launching my own line of food products, open a restaurant or a spice shop and host a cooking show. My son who’s almost 5 year old loves to cook too, so we are planning to launch a “Kids Can Cook” e-book series soon.
6. Favorite meal/feast you’re ever had?
In 2008, I went on a family trip to Courtrallam, situated on the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu (my home state), South India. It’s known for its waterfalls and during monsoon season, the weather is perfect to dip ourselves in the ice cold water. We hiked up the hills around sunset to enjoy the waterfall and then had late dinner at a mom n’ pop restaurant on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, popular for their spicy pepper chicken and parotta (flaky South Indian flatbread). The refreshing breeze from the hills made us dig into the comforting food. Definitely one of the BEST dinners I’ve eaten in my life.
7. What’s your most memorable moment hosting strangers at a dinner party?
Every meal I have hosted was truly memorable as I made new friends along the way, but I will never forget my 28-Dish South Indian Wedding Meal. Living here in the US, I miss home, family, weddings and great food. Elaborate food is an integral part of all our celebrations, and I wanted to re-create an authentic South Indian celebratory meal right here in San Francisco. The amount of time and effort that went into creating those 28 dishes was in every way worthwhile–we had 23 guests and everyone loved the theme, so I was thrilled. We plan on doing another in late August with a Karaikudi Wedding Menu.
8. What’s the one thing you always keep in your fridge?
Eggs and Cooked Rice
9. What is the go-to dish you make for yourself when home alone?
I make quick egg rice with scrambled eggs and spices.
10. Weapon of Choice (in the kitchen):
Iron Kadai (Wok) anyday!
11. You’re stranded on a desert island. You can only have one ingredient, but unlimited amounts of it. What is it?
No doubt, its coconut. I am from a tropical country and we use every bit of the tree. Coconut flesh to snack on, coconut water to drink, hard shell to burn fire, the husk as a body scrub, palm leaves as a mat and dried palm leaves stick can be used a broom! I’d have it all if I was stranded on an island.
12. A fun food fact:
Orange floats in water because its skin is full of air pockets. Go drop an orange in a tub of water and see for yourself.
13. What’s the cheesiest food pun:
Romaine Calm and Come to Kale-fornia!
14. Like the Sriracha craze of 2014, what’s a food trend that you’ve heard of lately?
I see a lot of my foodie friends interested in the locavore food movement so it’s going to be a lot of locally sourced ingredients for cooking.