Photo Credit: Prerna Singh
Vijitha Shyam might just be superhuman. She’s a molecular biologist, wife, and mom, but she is also a passionate home chef and food blogger. Her blog, Spices and Aroma, celebrates South Indian cuisine and her beloved grandmother, an accomplished home cook in her own right. From an elaborate chai tea service to a vegan Thanksgiving feast, Vijitha’s pop-ups are a diverse, tasty, and educational look at a commonly misunderstand or oversimplified cuisine.
How did you find your way into the historically male-dominated culinary industry?
I started my journey with cooking as a food blogger, starting my blog Spices and Aroma in 2008. Over the last 8+ years, I have evolved as a food writer, food photographer and recipe developer. In 2014, Spices and Aroma emerged as a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco with Feastly. That’s how I landed in the SF dining scene. I serve traditional South Indian food with California inspirations and show diners that there is more to Indian food than just naan, butter chicken, saag paneer, samosa and dosa. I did my research on traditional dishes from different regions of Tamil Nadu and re-create those recipes with local and seasonal produce I find at the farmers market.
What has been a defining moment in your career?
I cooked for 140 people at the 2015 “Future Feast,” an event at The Institute of the Future in Palo Alto. Having not trained in a restaurant setting, scaling up the menu was the toughest job. I learned through simple math how to scale. Considering the drought in California at that time, I decided to develop a vegan, gluten-free menu emphasizing the fact that climate change is not just about rising sea levels or threats to polar bears — it’s about food security. For “Future Feast,” I used ingredients that required less water to grow, like finger millet, black-eyed peas, pomegranates, and dates. I also used crops like potatoes and quinoa, which can adapt to extreme weather conditions. This event redefined my approach to cooking. My brand promotes sustainable living and supports local farmers.
Tell us about the ladies who serve up culinary inspiration in your life.
My achi (grandmother) was the first person I had seen in my circle of family who showed so much passion and love towards cooking. She was a small town home cook who enjoyed feeding family and friends. I still remember the upma she made with spaghetti, something unusual for a woman born in Indian in the 1930’s. From her, I learned how to be a gracious host. If she were alive, she would be the head chef of my meals and I would be her sous chef and dishwasher. She created pure magic in the kitchen.
I also grew up watching cooking shows with Madhur Jaffrey, Tarla Dalal and Anjum Anand. They are amazing chefs and TV personalities, and I love recreating their recipes. In the recent years, I have been following the works of Asha Gomez, as she is a true inspiration in every way. When I look at these women, it teaches me that passion is energy, and that ignites me to push my limits. I look at them with so much respect. Their courage and work ethic are contagious.
What advice do you have for other women trying to build culinary careers?
Coming from India, I was always taught to seek permission from a male figure to pursue something in life. It could be a father, brother, husband or son. So when I started my careers in science and the food industry, my question was whether my husband would permit me to follow my dream. With two young kids in hand, I always looked at my support system (parents, in-laws and friends) for comfort and reassurance.
This journey has had many ups and downs. Since I stayed consistent and focused on my passion, people around me started to believe in my work. As women, our deepest fear is that we feel inadequate. We always questions ourselves. We don’t place ourselves on our priority list. It’s time to follow our passion and chase our dreams. Educating oneself is key and that is the biggest investment in ourselves. No one can take our qualification away from us. Good luck! Let’s break the glass ceilings.