Indian in spirit

Celebrity chef Sarah Todd talks about the lure of the Indian culinary landscape

Dressed in a little black dress at her latest wine venture — The Wine Rack — in Mumbai, Sarah Todd is an eager host as she receives us on a hot afternoon. She bears little or no signs of jet lag following her Japan trip that lasted all of 24 hours. Today, it’s back-to-back meetings all afternoon. She quickly enquires about our preferences and sends for a bottle of wine and some dishes that compliment it — dishes that are carefully crafted to suit the Indian palate, while giving it a global spin.

The breadbasket, for instance, is swapped with the karari roti. “I know I say it with an accent — karrari,” she says apologetically. If anything, it makes the roti sound a lot crisper, we both agree. What follows is kulcha with sundried tomatoes, pesto and cheese. Like the delicious samples on our table, everything on the menu is an east-meets-west combination.

All things desi

As someone who grew up in Australia, studied (at Le Cordon Bleu) in France, lived in London and now is working in India, Sarah’s kitchen is truly a melting pot. “My food now is a mix of all kinds of ingredients, seasonings and techniques. The other day, I made a mussel hot pot. Now I would typically make it with a very basic tomato base but I found myself adding Indian spices, chilly, paprika and what not.” Having said that, the base is always local. “I want the food to sound familiar to my guests. The main issue we had with Antares (her popular Goa restaurant) was that the menu was quite unfamiliar to both the guests and the staff. It was too foreign. Besides, I think today it’s all about going local. There was a time when we wanted American sauces, English mustard and so on. But not anymore,” says Sarah.

Speaking of the local techniques that Sarah has lapped up in her kitchen she says, “The tandoor, for instance, is such a great tool. In the West, we struggle to get the smoky coal flavours but here, the tandoor just does it all. I use the tandoor all the time, and it’s hardly for making traditional Indian food — except the kulcha. It’s often for grilling French-style chicken and so on.” Sarah is particularly smitten by a technique she discovered on her recent trip to Assam. “So there was this set up with two flames on the ground, a pot in the centre and it had three different layers — one was dehydrating the meat and the other was smoking it before tossing it into a pot in the end. Three different techniques in one and they use it every day! I’d dream of having that in my kitchen,” says Sarah, who earned the moniker of bhatua on her trip — or the rice muncher/eater. “I liked it so much, I’d have it for three meals of the day.”

Wine theory

It’s not just the food however that Sarah wants to see change perceptions. Which is why her new kitchen experiment is to pair Indian food with wine. “I know that Indians are big on whiskey and beer but I think that Indian food perfectly compliments wine as well. The basic idea is that the robustness of the wine should match with the robustness of the food. If either is too overpowering, of course, it will take over,” says Sarah who likes to stay away from the pretentiousness that sometimes comes along with the wine territory. “You either like it or you don’t. It’s that simple,” she adds.

After merely four years of making an appearance on what’s unarguably the most viewed culinary TV show in the world (Masterchef Australia), Sarah has hosted three cookery shows on TV, been a judge on one and has two restaurants in India under her belt. There’s a lot more to come, but she’d rather not talk about it now. She attributes her superstition to her modelling days. “I’d go to 10 castings a day and tell my mum about it. She would then ask me if I got any gig and I’d say no. That’s when I decide I won’t talk about my plans until they materialise. Now I just call my mum and tell her that I am opening a restaurant in Mumbai. She can’t believe it, my poor mum.”

Sarah is a crazy list-writer though. “I am. I draw really long lists and then I go back to them every few months to see how far I’ve come. Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve done so much,” she adds with a laugh. There’s only one criterion for her to be part of a project. “It needs to have my soul and it has to be worth it. I work very hard and I am making a lot of sacrifices in terms of family time,” says Sarah, who sees her seven-year-old son during short breaks in Australia. Or when he visits India, where she has now moved for good.

Needless to say, food was a big draw, but there’s more to why she picked India as home after a world sojourn. “The first time that I came to India for a cooking demonstration, I met a couple for the first time and they took me to little food pockets in old Delhi. They were so warm and welcoming and that set the tone for the rest of my experience here. It feels like home.”

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