Vimala Rajendran might just be on to the biggest secret to success in the restaurant biz: Be yourself.


Growing up in Bombay, India, Rajendran was exposed at a young age to the subtle intricacies of her country's cuisine. For her, it was only natural to cook; she learned from her parents, her aunt and her entire family.


When Rajendran moved to North Carolina 30 years ago, she began preparing traditional dinners for her family. As more and more locals discovered her home-cooked food, the feasts grew to community-size. Soon the Health Department called, asking if her kitchen was permitted to feed so many people. Within a few days, she had a commercial location: Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.


Vimala's Curryblossom Café, which opened five years ago, is a local favorite – often ranked the best Indian restaurant in the Triangle.


The restaurant is active in several causes, such as ROCUNITED, a group dedicated to eliminating a lower tipped minimum wage for food-service employees and improving working conditions. It's also a teaching center in which its owner holds culinary classes once a month.


Mostly it's a neighborhood staple, where families come time and again to eat high-quality, freshly made meals.


Rajendran, who lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, has three grown children including a daughter, Anjali, who is the pastry chef at Curryblossom Café.


We met with Rajendran in her eatery to discuss her passions, especially her cuisine. Below is the edited interview along with five easy recipes she shared for an authentic tandoori chicken dinner.


Q: How long have you lived here?


A: I've lived in Chapel Hill 30 years, and I've lived in the United States 35 years. Those anniversaries are the same as India's Independence Day.


I just think that's so cool because I love India, and I miss India so much. I just think about the irony of someone who loved her country so much having to leave, leave her family, her country, her community, and then go so far away and make a home for herself. I've done it, passed all the challenges and had all the adventures.


Q: We've heard that you once did standup comedy. True?


A: I wouldn't call it standup comedy, but now that you're asking, I can say that it was a show at DSI Comedy Theater where they invited someone from the community to participate. The show is called "Mr. Diplomat," and the main guest tells stories. An improv team takes off from each story and makes an improv scene.


Q: You appear on TV in an ad for domestic violence against women. Can you talk a little bit about that?


A: I was asked by the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is based out of Durham/Raleigh, if I would act out a short script, and there were several of us.


I realized I was asked because I'm a survivor of family violence, but I don't look at myself as a victim or survivor. I call myself someone who is thriving not just surviving.


Q: Do you still teach cooking classes?


A: Yes! Each cooking class does this: It covers the use and potency of many different Indian spices, the relationship of each spice to others in a dish, and then we learn how to roast those spices or pop them in oil as the finish or start of a dish.


The people go home with more than just leftovers from the class. They take home the confidence to cook an entire meal that's Indian.


Q: What do you think sets your restaurant apart from other Indian outlets?


A: I've had quite a few Indian-restaurant owners tell me this is where they come when they want to eat homemade food. That should tell it all.


It is homemade in that every ingredient is carefully selected. As much as possible, it's organic and fair trade as well as sustainably grown.


We make all our spices from scratch; we don't buy pre-mixed or pre-ground spices.


People from India tell me that our food tastes just like their aunt's cooking, their grandmother's cooking, their mother's cooking.


Being an Indian-woman-owned restaurant, that in and of itself is unique. But I'm also chef-owner, so I'm personally invested in the recipes, the ingredients and the output. It just has its own unique touch.




Tandoori Chicken
This recipe is for 4 pounds of whole boneless breast or thigh meat.
Marinade #1 (blend smoothly)
4 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 of one small beet, plus 2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup white vinegar
Marinade #2 (blend smoothly except for yogurt, sour cream and vinegar)
2-3 sprigs cilantro (leaves and stem)
2 Indian or Thai green chiles or 1 Serrano pepper
1 tablespoon chopped onion
2 tablespoons ginger paste
3 tablespoons garlic paste
3 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1-inch piece cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne
1 pinch of black cumin (kalajeera)
Wash blender with a splash of white vinegar (1/8 cup) and add to marinade.


To prepare the chicken
Wash chicken with a liberal sprinkling of salt, rinse with cold water and set to drain in a colander in a sink. Score the chicken deeply before beginning to add the marinade.


To marinate

Rub the mixture of vinegar, beets, paprika, lime juice and salt. Let it sit for 30 minutes. Then add the next marinade ingredients (well-blended) as well as the yogurt and sour cream. Mix well and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.


Grill and serve hot with salad, in a pita sandwich, or over hot rice and a yogurt condiment.


Serves 8




Potato Bhaji
This recipe requires 2 pounds of potatoes.
For the seasoned oil
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 sprigs of curry leaf
2 tablespoons ginger, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, sliced (optional)
1 pound sliced onions
1 teaspoon ground turmeric


Boil potatoes that have been scrubbed and washed until soft. Drain and cool.


Remove eyes or any shoot-growths and cut into 3/4-inch cubes. Mix in 2 tablespoons of lime juice and 2 tablespoons salt.


Heat oil in a wok or deep saucepan. Add mustard seeds. When they pop, add the curry leaves, ginger and onions, followed by the turmeric. Stir well.


Turn the heat to medium low and cook the onions until soft but not brown. This will take about 10 minutes.


Remove from heat and mix in with the potato cubes. Refrigerate right away for storage.


Makes 6-8 servings




Cabbage Bhaji
1 green cabbage
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon lentils (urad dal)
1 cup chopped onions
1 green chili (like Serrano) chopped (seed the chili to keep it mild)
1 sprig curry leaf
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic paste

1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup dry coconut (optional)


Chop cabbage coarsely. Prepare all the ingredients and keep beside the stove in separate bowls.


Heat the canola oil in a large wok. Add mustard seeds and let them pop.


Add lentils (urad dal) and let the dal brown lightly. Then add chopped onions and green chilies as well as curry leaves, garlic paste, cumin, salt and turmeric.


Sauté until the onions are light brown. Toss in the cabbage and stir well on low heat. Stir occasionally until well-mixed and cabbage is cooked.


Add coconut if you want to make it a traditional Indian thoran.


Makes 6-8 servings



Pakora (veggie fritters)
4 cups chickpea flour
2 tablespoons rice flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/2 teaspoon carom (ajwain) seeds

Vegetable slices: thin sliced potatoes (1/8 inch), eggplant, kale or spinach leaves, thick sliced onion (1/4 inch), sweet potato, cauliflower pieces, thin sliced taro (yautia)


To make the batter, add the water all at once to the whisked, dry ingredients and let rest for 10 minutes. Heat oil for deep frying in a wok or deep fryer (will use about a quart of oil). Oil is hot when a drop of batter rises to the top (350 degrees).


Dip vegetables in batter and deep fry in 350 degree oil.


Serve with cilantro-coconut chutney or cilantro-mint chutney.


Serves 10



Cilantro-Coconut Chutney
1 cup dried shredded coconut (or 1 1/2 cups fresh coconut)
1 cup fresh cilantro
1 chopped green bell pepper
3 hot chilies
Up to 1/2 cup lime juice (or yogurt)
Salt to taste


Blend together until smooth.


Serves 10




Cilantro-Mint Chutney
2 bunches cilantro, well washed
1 bunch mint leaves (roughly 2 cups)
8 small green chilies
1 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons salt
Garlic (optional)
1 whole green apple (optional)


Blend together until smooth.


Serves 10