Australian-origin chef and restaurateur Sarah Todd’s relationship with India began way before she visited the country. But once she did, in 2014, there was no going back. By Rashima Nagpal
T+L India: You call India your second home. What are the aspects that feel familiar to you?
Sarah Todd: India has a contagious energy and zest for life, chaotic yet magical, traditional yet contemporary, overcrowded and bursting at the seams. On one of my earlier visits, I remember thinking, “This is what I am missing in my life.” It is the unfamiliar aspects of this vibrant country that I love.
T+L India: What was your first impression when you landed in India?
Sarah Todd: With such tremendous support from India during my time on MasterChef Australia, I just had to visit, so I organised cooking demonstrations in Delhi, Mumbai, and Goa for over two weeks. I was overwhelmed yet intrigued when I first landed in Delhi on that maiden trip in 2014. More people live in Delhi than the entire population of Australia. For some perspective, my hometown in Queensland, at the time, had a population of 2,000. I felt I had an instant connection and was humbled by the generosity of the people. After a cooking demonstration in Delhi, a couple with two young kids took me to Old Delhi. The city’s mixture of food and energy was magical, but it was the family’s generosity in taking a whole day out of their time to show me around–that impressed me the most.
T+L India: Can you recall one of your earliest (if not the first) experiences of Indian food?
Sarah Todd: Keema was my first experience of Indian food and still to date is one of my top 10 favourite dishes. I crave it all the time, even when I was in labour (haha, it was a long labour)!
T+L India: Who taught you or inspired you to cook Indian dishes?
Sarah Todd: My first teacher was my son’s grandmother. She was born in Punjab, so this is the most familiar style for me. I have this wonderful memory of her cooking traditional Indian food for the family while watching a Bollywood movie. There were no measuring cups or even a recipe. She cooked recipes handed down to her from her mother and the generations before her. The spices were balanced perfectly, and the meals were cooked with love. The dishes become the best version of themselves, and this is the essence of Indian cuisine.
My knowledge of regional cuisines comes from my extensive travels around India. Indian cuisine is different from state to state, even from village to village. From Assam to Kashmir and to Goa, I took something from every visit, whether a technique or an ingredient and incorporated it into my cooking.
T+L India: When did you decide to do a cookbook dedicated to Indian cuisine?
Sarah Todd: Although I visited Indian restaurants many times in Australia, it was not until I tasted home-cooked Indian cuisine that I really fell in love with it. At first, as a non-Indian, I found the cooking style a little daunting. However, after immersing myself in the culture over the last six years, I realised some basic techniques, once mastered, are the foundation of Indian cooking. At this moment, I realised I wanted to share what I learnt with the rest of the world.
T+L India: You’ve mentioned that the cookbook is a collection of your travels across India over the years. Can you let us in some of the most memorable anecdotes from the journey(s)?
Sarah Todd: I have travelled to many cities and states in India and marvel at the diversity in cuisines and cultures. However, it is away from the usual tourist spots that I discovered the heart and soul of this unique land. My time in Rajasthan was one of my most memorable experiences. I was welcomed into the homes of the Rajasthani locals to cook bajre ki roti (Indian flatbread made using pearl millet) topped with white butter. I remember breaking the roti and eating it with local jaggery. I never thought such humble ingredients would make me feel such emotion.
I fell in love with the state of Kashmir during my first visit. Everything about it is unique: the people, the culture, and the beautiful produce. Almost every household grows their own vegetables and cooks with those fresh foods only. During my time there, I discovered a unique spinach that I added to a delicious broth. I spent 10 days in Assam for the documentary Awesome Assam with Sarah Todd. One of my favourite experiences was spending time with the Mishing community. Significant importance is placed on food preparation, both at home and for rituals or festivals. We entered the home through the kitchen, the most important space in the house. This beautiful and functional kitchen was set up with two flames, one for grilling and one for a smoking layer. This self-sufficient community uses traditional techniques, which any chef would admire. We finished the meal with a traditional alcoholic beverage called Apong that is made from fermented rice. This refreshing drink is presented to a guest as a symbol of honour and pride for the host family. They certainly made me feel very welcome.
T+L India: Of all the segments of My Indian Kitchen, which is your personal favourite?
Sarah Todd: I love the section on base curries. This is an excellent place for a novice cook to start and a perfect foundation to begin experimenting.
T+L India: Your first gig as a restaurateur has been in Goa (Antares). What led you to pin down Goa (and India at large)?
Sarah Todd: During my time in MasterChef Australia, I made several authentic Indian dishes, from fish curry to fresh roti and pickle and finally, aloo gobi (potato-cauliflower)—as you know, traditional Punjabi food. I was not aware that MasterChef Australia was so popular in India. The question being asked was, “Who is this girl cooking a fancy aloo gobi on MasterChef?” Within a week, I had 50,000 followers from India…and to be honest, I thought it was all spam! So, I planned cooking demos across India. When I arrived in Goa, it felt like home, from the weather to the plants and the beaches.
T+L India: Who loves Indian food more–you or your son?
Sarah Todd: Haha, definitely me! My son, although half Punjabi, is still developing his palette. However, he is willing to explore different kinds of Indian cuisines now.
T+L India: Indian restaurants that you highly recommend to your friends?
Sarah Todd: I highly recommend Vinayak Family Restaurant, Assagao, for a Goan fish thali. My favourite restaurant in Mumbai is always my first stop when I land. I call up Mahesh Lunch Home before I arrive and ask them to save me the biggest crab they have. I never realised that butter garlic crab was such an iconic dish in Maharashtra; it’s one of my favourite things to eat in India. Maharaja Bhog in Mumbai, a pure vegetarian Indian restaurant, is also one of my all-time favourites. My visits here always fill me with nostalgia. This is where I bring friends and family to experience the wonder of vegetarian thalis. My most memorable visit was with my mum, nephew and son, who were seven and eight at the time. We all loved the food, and mum and I were entertained watching the boys interact with the staff.
T+L India: Your favourite Indian chef?
Sarah Todd: Chef Manish Mehrotra has to be on top of my list.
T+L India: Places in India that you can’t wait to check off your bucket list?
Sarah Todd: Believe it or not, I have not been to Punjab yet so that’s going to be one of the first places I visit the next time I’m in India.
T+L India: If you could get on a plane and travel to India right now (and there was no pandemic), what’s the first thing you’d do?
Sarah Todd: I would catch the first flight out and go to my restaurant, Antares in Goa.