RALEIGH, N.C. — As a child growing up in Chandigarh, India, the chef Cheetie Kumar knew that Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, was approaching by the aromas emanating from the kitchen. She remembers catching the scent of whole milk simmered with freshly cracked cardamom and carrots in the air as she ran outside to play.
“I cannot tell you what I was playing or whom I was playing with,” Ms. Kumar said. “But those smells are with me to this day.”
At Garland, the restaurant in downtown Raleigh she opened with her husband, Paul Siler, in 2013, Ms. Kumar makes Indian and pan-Asian food with a vibrant North Carolina slant. A self-taught cook, she thrives by uniting global flavors and erasing the geographic boundaries of ingredients and techniques.
Her food is nuanced and edgy, and so is she: Ms. Kumar moonlights as the lead guitarist for a rock band, Birds of Avalon. “It’s a creative outlet as well as a source of creativity,” she said.
Her path to professional kitchens wasn’t a linear one. In the early 1980s, when she was 8, she and her family immigrated to New York and lived on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. There, her relationship with cooking developed more from duty than delight. Her parents — each has a Ph.D in biochemistry — worked full-time in immunology research. Despite the demanding schedule, Ms. Kumar’s mother prepared Punjab-style homemade meals virtually every weeknight.
“We went out for dinner maybe four times a year,” Ms. Kumar said. Her mother’s dinners always had at least one vegetable, like the fragrant cauliflower-and-potato dish aloo gobi, and some kind of dal finished with tomato tarka alongside basmati rice, chapati, yogurt and mango pickle.
“Helping my mom make dinner was the chore I loved to hate,” Ms. Kumar said.
Over time she grew fond of preparing family meals, but it was a worn cookbook anthology from the 1960s that guided her toward cooking professionally.
“I bought that giant, dusty cookbook for a nickel at a Bronx library book sale,” she said. When she realized she could make some of the dishes, like Madhur Jaffrey’s mango chicken, inspiration struck: “I devoured those recipes. I was both intimidated and challenged. I wanted more.”
The menu at Garland connects the dishes she makes from childhood memory with ingredients that speak of the South. Her shrimp and okra borrows a spice blend from her mother, made with cumin, coriander, mango powder, black salt and turmeric. Paired with flash-fried large shrimp from eastern North Carolina, the dish straddles her past and present.
“As a family we always did things differently,” Ms. Kumar said. “I was taught at an early age that everything is up for interpretation, even how we celebrate Diwali.”
The holiday, which is celebrated on Nov. 7 in the United States this year and commemorates the triumph of light over darkness, is both a sacred ritual observed at home and an animated communal celebration with neighbors and friends. There is plenty of food, especially sweets.
Gajak, a sesame seed-and-peanut brittle, and gajar halwa, the pudding infused with carrot and cardamom that she recalled from her childhood, are Ms. Kumar’s favorites. There is a mystery in the making of gajak that still has her rapt, decades later: The flavors don’t truly shine until the brittle has been allowed to set for about 20 or 30 minutes.
“There’s something magical that occurs that accounts for the transformation,” she said.
And the bright carrots of the gajar halwa “scream celebration,” she said; the dessert gets more lush as it slowly simmers in the spice-infused milk.
Ms. Kumar harnesses these nostalgic Indian dishes and reimagines them to fit her locale. For a recent dinner at the James Beard House in New York, Ms. Kumar served a riff on gajar halwa with yogurt custard and carrot sherbet.
Recipes by Cheetie Kumar and More on Diwali