Vij Senthilnathan is a molecular biologist, wife, mother of two and chef. Her cooking is based in the authentic Southern Indian recipes she learned from her grandmother, with some Californian influences. Vij loves to cook for others, and regularly hosts pop-up dinners around the Silicon Valley. She grew up in Chennai, India, and currently lives in San Jose, California.
Growing up in India, Vij would often enjoy her grandmother’s cooking. She remembers the authentic, traditional Indian dishes, and how her grandmother loved to host others. This eventually inspired Vij to learn the same recipes, adapting them to include some of the local, sustainable foods of Northern California. “When I was living in England, working towards my master’s degree, I had to learn to cook for myself, as I couldn’t afford to eat out everyday. I found cooking to be therapeutic. I remember seeing how my grandmother had such a passion and excitement in cooking for others, and I think I got this from her. I get so excited to host a party, to create a menu. I make most of her dishes, but over the years, I’ve also tweaked them, buying ingredients from the local farmer’s market. There are so many beautiful and bountiful vegetables here. I make authentic dishes with a California tribute. I’ll replace white rice with brown rice, or quinoa, or buckwheat, just to try the texture and flavor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The whole idea is that it’s California-inspired, but also true to my roots.”
Day-to-day, Vij works in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. She sees a parallel between her career in science and her passion for cooking. “I think of cooking as an experiment. How you use your ingredients, how you learn from it, how you make it better the next time. My approach to cooking is similar to how I studied biology in school. In India, growing up we believed that ‘food is medicine and medicine is food’ and that’s how I see the connection, and my love for it. I work with a pharmaceutical company, but I don’t believe in taking medication unless it’s really needed. I try to apply my science background and understand the ingredients.”
Vij regularly plans and hosts pop-up meals, and has put together dinners for Airbnb Experiences, as well as Tapestry Suppers, a Silicon Valley supper club that features immigrant stories and cuisines while supporting charitable causes. “When I graduated, I had some time on my hands, so I started my blog, Spices and Aroma. In 2014, we opened a pop-up restaurant. It was like a Airbnb for food, like a dining experience for food. That was how I got into the pop-up cooking. Last year I did a chai pop-up with Tapestry Suppers. That was a really good experience, all the money donated from the event went to victims of the wildfires in California that year. I’m looking forward to collaborating with them again, and doing another pop-up soon.”
Vij also loves cooking for her family. Her husband works in the Silicon Valley, and they are raising two children, who often help her in the kitchen. She’s concerned about recent changes to immigration policy, especially instances of young children being detained and separated from their parents at the border. “It really personally impacted me, because as a mother, I know how difficult it is to be separated from a child. That has been the most sensitive issue for me. For me, you should always treat others the way you want to be treated. That’s the rule of my house.”