Cooking for a cause

Each second Saturday of every month, Indian chef and north shore resident Vi Herbert offers a cooking class and vegetarian feast at her home that serves more than the people who attend. For the past five years, Herbert has worked to create a non-profit agency in Kaua‘i to build a fully functioning high school in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. With 0 percent overhead and 100 percent direct donation, Herbert has thrown her love for cooking and selfless service into bettering the lives of impoverished but promising young people thousands of miles away. The Kolam Charitable Foundation, Herbert’s organization, recently received the news that in their first attempt, 27 of the school’s 10th grade students passed national achievement exams with ‘A’ level grades. While Kaua‘i residents delight in Herbert’s healthy and tasty luncheons, the lives of underprivileged children are changing for the better.

The sun flooded living room, set within Herbert’s extensive garden, seats nearly 20 guests at a recent cooking class. The room is saturated with the vibrant spices that make Indian cooking one of the most flavorful on the planet. Herbert busily attends to bubbling pots and hot pans, as she roasts mustard seeds and prepares Urud lentils for the dosai (fired fritters dipped in tasty chutneys).

“I found out that most people coming for a cooking class want more than just demonstrations,” said Herbert, “they want to eat. So over the years I have made more and more food, and left only a few recipes for the actual ‘class.’” Guests stand around Herbert’s kitchen watching her mix and chop with the speed of a confident mother who knows her recipes blind-folded.

On the menu for today’s brunch includes tomato biriyani (rice), mochai curry ( light soup), garlic roasted breadfruit, rasam, dhosai, sambar, roasted onion chutney, tomato chutney and mango kesari. “I tell everyone not to eat breakfast before they come here, there’s always so much food,” said Herbert.

While most of the guests are not actually vegetarians, Herbert is confident that everyone who attends “leaves more than satisfied.” From the evidence of empty plates and smiling faces, Herbert’s home-cooking hits the spot. “These recipes are from my mother’s kitchen. Nowhere else can you learn actual Indian home cooking, the way we have done it forever. This is practical and anyone can do it with a few tools and the right spices,” said Herbert.

While her cooking is a first love, The Kolam Charitable Foundation is the current passion most engaging and valuable to Herbert. “I come from a family that always believed in helping and giving to others. In fact, throughout my childhood in India I saw how my family built education centers and orphanages, so this is ingrained in me — giving to those less fortunate. Our main goal as a foundation is to help people in developing countries achieve economic independence. Education and training is the surest way to do this,” said Herbert.

The word ‘Kolam’ means ‘beauty’ in Tamil, and is an ancient design-art that has applications on tapestry and embroidery. Kolam’s delicate designs symbolize the meek and impoverished and ‘kolam’ is done as a daily practice in front of the south Indian home with rice flour. “Women make these designs in the dirt to feed the ants and insects as a daily offering,” said Herbert. Kolam Foundation sells embroidered linens in this style as another fund-raising initiative.

While the Foundation began buying necessities like goats, milk cows and food, its main work is in education by supplying women in villages with sewing machines to create their own marketable crafts, by financing college students and finally by building a rural school, Imayam School, that now teaches 178 students each day, with two full-time teachers and free meals.

The teachers, Saraswathi and Ponrathi are “the real heroes,” said Herbert. “Both over fifty, they have never married and dedicated their lives to teaching over the past several decades.” Saraswathi uniquely designed the newly built circular volunteer building that houses any visiting volunteer and serves as an extra learning space.

Herbert has ‘recruited’ willing Kaua‘i residents and groups to travel to the school and donate their time by teaching kids ‘conversational English’ classes or teaching Hula. The Ka ‘Imi Educational Institute under the direction of Roselle Keli‘ihonipua Bailey traveled earlier in the year and taught students Hula and Mele. North Shore resident Carol Conley was the guest speaker at Saturday’s luncheon having just returned (the week previous) from volunteering for one month at Imayam School.

“True poverty is where there is a brilliant person who has zero opportunity,” said Conley, nearly overwhelmed by emotion describing her experience, “These students were so bright, focused and attentive.” Conley described how each day 40 students sat cross-legged on the lanai of the school’s newly built rotunda, curious and engaged while she taught basic spoken English skills.

“Their vocabulary blew me away, it was basic sentence structure that needed practicing,” said Conley over lunch. “They are all so grateful for the opportunity to go to this school, they come just brimming with joy, alert and ready to learn.” Herbert’s fund-raising has provided the entire operating budget for the school, which provides first rate education and meals for students who “come from illiterate households, this school skips what would take generations of education, normally available in this area, to achieve potential for economic independence and opportunity,” said Herbert.

Sharing the wealth of traditional Indian culture in Herbert’s way completes a cycle by giving back to contemporary India, which continues to struggle with obscene poverty and lack of opportunity. With the West’s love and adoption of Indian food, Hatha yoga and colorful fabrics, the cultural river has flown only one direction; The Kolam Foundation seeks to create a river bed to allow an equal and opposite flow of giving back to the source. With bellies full of Herbert’s delicious cooking and hearts full from Conley’s first hand experience, guests of the luncheon had been given much food for thought.

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