Vimala Rajendran speaks in a melodic tone, with a soothing cadence highlighted by an Indian accent, as she reminisces about her childhood in Bombay and her penchant for helping in the kitchen.
"At age 6, I would be using a huge granite mortar and pestle and grinding all sorts of spices. And my neighbors thought my mother was making me do it, and they would make remarks like 'Oh, you're making her drag and carry a boulder.'"
These days, she drags restaurant-sized cast-iron woks from India onto her Chapel Hill front porch and cooks up feasts using the most modern of her methods: a propane fire burner. Her husband of three and a half years, Rush Greenslade, is a self-proclaimed turkey fryer.
"When Vimala's cooking met my fire burners," he says, "the world caught fire."
"In a good way," Vimala interjects.
For 12 years, Vimala has blended her love of cooking with a commitment to community to create weekly dinners in her Chapel Hill home. They have grown to feed up to 100 people weekly. She also caters a variety of local fundraisers and events.
Her cooking methods remain elegantly traditional; she grinds whole spices in small batches with a mortar and pestle. The vibrantly colored spices fill glass jars with handwritten labels, adorning a bookshelf beneath a row of equally beautiful cookbooks.
Many vignettes surround Vimala and her sought-after cuisine, making her somewhat of a local celebrity. As one story goes, a child and his caregiver walked into Locopops off Franklin Street, where her son Rajeev works. Rajeev overheard the customers as they gazed at the ingredient list:
Child: "What's cardamom?"
Caregiver: "It's what Vimala puts in her brownies."
Vimala has developed recognition from these brownies, along with homemade Indian favorites such as chana masala, samosas, hot chai, hibiscus tea and her ever-popular Tandoori chicken. It is marinated in a tasty blend of spices, beet powder for color, vinegar, fresh-squeezed lime juice, homemade yogurt, garlic, ginger, green chiles and cilantro.
"To be honest, I've never had this kind of Tandoori chicken since I've been to Chapel Hill, in all of North Carolina," said Mihir Shah, who emigrated from India four years ago. "This is perfect."
Men in collared shirts, women with dreadlocks, students in T-shirts and children with sticky fingers all come as they are to Vimala's home on Wednesday evenings, spilling into the small kitchen and living room.
Enthralled by Vimala's magnetic personality, Raleigh resident Jess Frucht volunteers to help with the cooking. She says it's impossible to meet Vimala and shake her hand; instead, Vimala will hug you.
"You can see that so much of the driving force behind the dinners is the community she's built and the love she puts into everything she does," Frucht says. "The power of a shared meal is pretty unrivaled. I've discovered common ground and social ties with people I would never have met otherwise."
Vimala's relationships with local butchers and farmers—including Cane Creek Farms and Eco Farms—form the backbone of her local sources. Add to that her own vegetable garden, and it's locavore cooking at its best. Even when she buys ingredients in India, she buys directly from the producer.
A donation jar is open each week, which helps Vimala break even, but contributions are not required. Often, the dinners raise funds for a local charity. Last week, she raised $500 for The People's Channel's summer youth media camp. (A longtime volunteer, Vimala currently serves as president of the station's board of directors.)
Local food activist Rob Jones (cropmob.org) helped Vimala make roti last week, chatting with her over the stove.
A big part of local food activism has to do with access. Not everyone can afford to go to the farmers' market and buy local produce. Not everyone can afford to grow their own food," he said. "This is a place that's very accessible. Vimala cooks. Everybody eats."
Vimala frequently interrupts herself when revealing animated details from a colorful catalog of memories full of tastes, smells and celebrations. Yet all the while, she keeps a steady composure and a sequence of storytelling that is as carefully prepared as her food.
She describes momentous food experiences with a gleam in her eye and a wide, radiant smile. At just barely 17, she said, she left home for college in Sion, India, and discovered street food, tasting her first samosa.
"I saw this samosa shop," she begins. "And they had a mountain of chopped cilantro that was 8 feet tall, literally, like a pyramid in Egypt. I smelled [the samosas]; I had to crack down their secret. I actually stood by to see what went into the mixture. I made my first big batch of samosas in Ann Arbor, Mich. [when first arriving to the U.S.]. Rush ate his first samosa in Bombay at that shop and that was the only samosa, he said, that came close to being like mine in flavor and taste."
That shop, Guru Kripa, still exists and is touted as the best samosa shop in Bombay (now called Mumbai), making 30,000 samosas a day, according to a Mumbai food blog.
Fittingly enough, the shop's name is Punjabi for "God's grace." In getting to know Vimala, one begins to understand her desire to serve the community. She grew up in a Christian household in India and is still a devout believer. She first came to Canada, then to the U.S., about 30 years ago as a newlywed.
She speaks about resilience and struggle during this time, a stark contrast to her vivid and loving stories about food and community today. Yet this juxtaposition defines many aspects of her life. After enduring years of family violence and emotional abuse perpetuated by her ex-husband, she says she finally found the courage to leave the abusive household and never look back, with three small children in tow.
She had not attended a church service since moving from India (her ex-husband wouldn't allow it), but she sought out a service one particular night in 1994 and heard a message at a Chapel Hill church that made her feel closer to God's grace.
"That night, I went home and felt a peace I hadn't felt in a long time. The next day was Thanksgiving Day, and I left with my children," she said. "The kids and I stuck together. I got full custody. I've lived a life of dignity and peace and freedom since then. My children have all become creative, compassionate, self-reliant, active in the community—young adults I'm extremely proud of."
She has also reconnected with her family in India. After more than two decades of not seeing them, Vimala was finally issued a green card and returned to India for the first time in 2005.
In the family living room, Rajeev picks up a framed photograph of his mother and her younger sister, Baby Aunty, taken on that trip. He points to his mother's smile, a smile exuding energy despite her hardships.
"In Mom's life, a clear crossroads was choosing to marry a person who turned out to be cruel, controlling and destructive, and leaving a family who loved her and a country she loved," Rajeev says. "When you've come out alive from the things she's been through, it gives a clearer sense of who you are and what's important."
Sitting at her kitchen table, Vimala says, "I was proud of the fact that I was able to not accept the status quo, and also to break loose from the image that a victim of family violence would have, of being pitiful and unable to give to the community. Right from the very start, I felt like the community and I had a symbiotic relationship."
So she started cooking.
"I don't think she's thinking in a calculated way, 'I should be giving back to my community because this is rejecting the status quo,'" her son says. "It's more because we have come out of that, because it feels like we were brought out of that, and we are lucky to be alive. There's never anything to worry about. It makes this giving spirit flow naturally from her."
"You know, no one's sad when company's coming," says Vimala. "I have memories of company coming to my parents' home and all of us getting well-dressed and anticipating good food. That's the atmosphere I try to create, to always feel festive about our daily life. Like Rajeev said, lucky to be alive. Everything about life from there on is worth celebrating. And these dinners make it so possible."
E-mail Vimala Rajendran at email@example.com to be put on her Wednesday dinner e-mail list and to learn more about her catering company, Curryblossom Creations.