India matches Sarah Todd’s love for food & culture

By Indira Laisram
Sarah Todd in India

In a life that is otherwise transient, Sarah Todd has a deep connection with India. But the chef, restaurateur and author managed to get into home soil last March from India on time just before Australia sealed off its borders from the rest of the world. And in the time that she has been under the coronavirus lockdown, Todd found an ideal fit to work on her own exclusive handmade Indian spice range and launched it here this August (more on that later).

Sitting in her Melbourne home and connecting on Zoom, Todd says she will be on the first plane as soon as she can to get to India. Not surprising given that India is what matches Todd’s sensibility for food and culture.

About seven years ago, riding on the popularity of her debut in MasterChef Australia, a show much followed and loved in India, where her aloo gobi preparation saw her social media following jump to 500k overnight, Todd took off for India to become a household name.

“When I landed in India, I was just blown away by the response I had and I think that was the fuel, honestly, to make me strive so much,” says. She would go on to open a few restaurants including the now successful Antares restaurant in Goa.

Sarah Todd at her restaurant Antares in Goa

But the affinity with India also comes from the fact her son Phoenix is half-Indian. “His dad’s family is from Punjab and for the two years before that (MasterChef), we have been diving into his culture. When you have a child, you want to make sure that you are expressing his culture and showing him all the things that are a part of his heritage,” she says.

Being Australian, Todd says she also really wanted to understand the culture herself, so that ignited the passion for India and the cuisines as well.

“Prior to MasterChef too, I was mostly cooking for nutrition, health and survival, but cooking for love was something quite fresh to me. So, it took me two years in India to understand my own style and that is through experience”

Todd believes it wasn’t the novelty about her that brought her so much fame in India but the appreciation of her love for food.

But a good deal has changed since the time she landed in India. “My perspective on food has changed 100 per cent,” says Todd. “Looking back at the dishes I made in MasterChef, yes they were technically good and tasty but the story and the nostalgia behind them were not really there. That’s only something that comes through experience. Prior to MasterChef too, I was mostly cooking for nutrition, health and survival, but cooking for love was something quite fresh to me. So, it took me two years in India to understand my own style and that is through experience—it’s like anything in life, the style or influences come with experience.”

Sarah with son Phoenix

Excitingly Todd has just launched her own exclusive Indian handmade spice range here in Australia. Rich, aromatic, distinct in colour and flavour, Todd says she uses fresh ingredients and sustainably sourced products and working closely with select farmer co-ops in India to procure the best organic, sustainable products for this range.

The whole concept came from her experience in India. Todd admits to being overwhelmed by India at the beginning especially seeing that every state and region had different cuisines. “But after a few years, I realised it is not as complicated as it seems for an outsider. As I started going to states such as Rajasthan and Assam and cooking with locals, I discovered a few techniques that simplified it for me.”

That trick of the trade was what she wanted to give Australia. A cookbook My Indian Kitchen earlier this year was the first step towards sharing the trick and “it shows cooking Indian food from a non-Indian perspective and that it is not a difficult one”.

Sarah in Rajasthan

To take things one step further, Todd asked her friends in India, chefs as well, “who were obviously cooking the best of the best” whether they grinded or toasted all their spices fresh every single time they cooked. “When they said no and that they prepare in advance so when they are cooking it’s a quicker process on a day to day basis, it got me thinking.”

“Here in Australia, we think Indian cooking from start to finish needs to be done fresh every step of the way, and the biggest intimidating part of it is that spice blend. That’s why I wanted to create this blend where I wanted to show people that you can get somewhat of an authentic flavour without all the hassles.”

From a lively vindaloo to a seafood masala to tandoori, the range of handcrafted spices is about trying to educate people in Australia that these can even be used as rubs on meat or vegetables and roast them in the oven, says Todd. “I don’t think anybody in Australia realise that it can be really that simple, so that’s my focus and it’s been a nice experience working on them.”

Sarah cooking with the locals in Rajasthan

Todd’s rising fame rests not just on these creations. Her profile has grown from a chef to an entrepreneur to an author, but has it changed her relationship to work? “Not really, I was raised in a very loving family but we didn’t have a lot of money. So I think that upbringing really sticks with you for a long time, you think you need to be running and working hard always. And I really consciously need to say ‘sit back and acknowledge how far you have come and what you have achieved’. But for me it’s always that upbringing that makes me strive for the next thing.”

The fact is, the pandemic and being holed up in Melbourne has been good for Todd. She has just finished filming a television series which will come out shortly. She also has an exciting pop restaurant coming up at Crown’s Evergreen dining space in October, where she will also hero Indian food with her unique style.

Sarah’s range of Indian spices

Most importantly, “this has time has been really good for me because when you are running from country to country and place to place, it’s hard to regroup. But I’ve had time to consolidate my thoughts and focus on the things that I am really passionate about.”

Admittedly, it’s a life that is full on with India at the core. “If I have not gone to India, I am not sure what would have happened,” sums up Todd.

Connect with Indira Laisram on Twitter

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