"I went to your pub The Hind's Head and I had the Scotch egg there. I went home and made it a thousand times until I could master it and I went to MasterChef made my own version of it and I won the challenge," said celebrity chef Sarah Todd, at the end of the session she was moderating with revered chef Heston Blumenthal at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit's 17th edition last Friday.

"I wanted to open an Indian restaurant in Australia, but ended up opening an Australian restaurant in India!"

And a few days before the Summit when I speak to her over the telephone (we manage to squeeze an interview with Sarah in the midst of her bustling schedule in India) and ask her about the first Indian dish she ever ate, pat comes the reply: "The first authentic Indian dish I ever ate? It would be a lamb keema!"

The sprightly international celebrity chef has just explored Rajasthan thoroughly. In Mihirgarh, Jodhpur, Sarah's learnt the technique of khad cooking whereby a marinated goat is covered in rotis and then cloth, and then slow-cooked in a hole dug into the ground topped with coal for eight hours. Now Sarah's in Delhi and by her own admission, she is in India every two to three weeks.

"I do three weeks in Australia and three in India, back and forth all the time," says Sarah, who has established restaurants like Antares in Goa and The Wine Rack in Mumbai. The MasterChef Australia Season 6 contestant whose aloo gobi grabbed the attention of Indians globally hadn't imagined turning restaurateur here.

"When I first went on MasterChef I wanted to open an Indian restaurant in Australia. But the universe did not hear me properly and I ended up opening an Australian restaurant in India," she laughs. "I thank the universe for this because when I got to India, I realised just how diverse the culinary scene is. Every city and state has its own cuisine, each so different from the other that when you travel within India, you feel you're in a different country each time," says Sarah who has filmed television series including My Restaurant In India and Serve It Like Sarah amongst others.

India - aaj kal

Five years after her first trip to the country at the end of 2014, she no longer feels like a newbie. "It was overwhelming. India is very different to Australia, which is very quiet. There are 24 million people in the whole of Australia and there are 24 million in Delhi alone! But I fell in love with India the very first day, especially because everyone was very hospitable and very inviting," she says.

"The dosa is so different to anything we think of Indian food in Australia. I'd never tasted anything like it. It was such a surprise!"

On that first trip, Sarah recalls meeting a couple and their two kids. "They not only offered to show me around but also to take me to old Delhi. I said 'cool,' not knowing what to expect but this beautiful family spent the whole day taking me around. It was really special," Sarah says. "I'm a lot more comfortable here now. It's been more than five years and I understand the way things work here," she adds.

She's also noticed how the food scene in India has become very open. More people experiment with food, playing with flavours and reinventing the classics.

Dosa and more...

It was on her debut trip here that Sarah tried a dosa for the first time - and it was the first dish that she ate here too! "It's so different to anything we think of Indian food in Australia and I'd never tasted anything like it. It was such a surprise!" she says.

But keema is the first Indian dish she cooked. "I had it in Australia; my son's father cooked it for me for the first time. That must be at least nine years ago now! I absolutely loved it and then learned to make it and a bunch of other Indian dishes. It is like my go-to party dish. It's a crowd favourite and is just yummy." Obviously those first impressions linger, because though by now she's had hundreds of dishes across India, keema is still her all-time favourite Indian dish.

"I'm cooking with French techniques but my palate has changed and I crave more flavoursome food!"

She learned to cook the Indian way from her son's Punjabi grandparents. "His dad and I are separated now but for a year-and-a-half when we lived with his parents, I saw his mother cooking all these dishes. I began writing down the recipes, although you can't really write them down as it's a pinch of this and a pinch of that, but I ended up learning a lot," she says.

As a result Indian food is now part of Sarah's home cooking and her eight-year-old son Phoenix is learning to love it. "He is a huge lamb lover and is getting to enjoy the spices more and more now that he is a bit older," she adds affectionately.

Tricks of the trade

Sarah is also intrigued by Indian cooking techniques, particularly tandoor-style cooking. "The delicious, smoky flavours that the food gets (from cooking in the tandoor) is just amazing. We have something similar in Australia, the barbecue - it's about layering the flavours in a dish, which I think is really important. But separate to techniques, I think the biggest thing about Indian food is flavours. I'm adding a lot more flavour to my dishes now and my palate has changed as well," says Sarah whose food is spicier now.

Her personal cooking style has changed completely and all of her dishes have a bit of an Indian influence. "I kind of made it my mission to be a bit of a voice from the Westerners' perspective about Indian cooking," says Sarah who has been exploring Rajasthan and shooting lifestyle images for her new cookbook.

"The concept is to just simplify Indian food, tell Australians that it's not as complicated as you think," reveals Sarah.

Growing up in multicultural Australia, Sarah's seen that almost every Australian restaurant, even the finest ones, has a bit of every cuisine in the world in its offerings. "Mine's the same. I'm French-trained but I definitely take inputs from all of my influences."

So when Sarah creates a menu, her idea is to add a little nostalgia or her own anecdotes to it whenever possible. She likes to connect the dishes to the regions whether through an Indian technique or an Indian ingredient or flavour, but it all ultimately has her spin on it. So her version of laal maas is a gravy that she prepares separately and then adds to a rack of lamb. The way she finishes and prepares her dishes is also a mix of Indian and European. There are kulchas with red wine, duck meat, cranberry and Gorgonzola, and check out her Instagram handle to see mishti doi, a fermented sweet yogurt from Bengal, served with a raspberry roll and raspberry powder.

On her desi connection

Though the first Indian dishes she learned to cook were Punjabi, Sarah has yet to visit the state. "I'd want to keep visiting every city if I had the time," she chuckles. "Two days ago, we were in Udaipur and Jaipur; I've been to Assam, Nagaland, Kashmir, Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Chennai, Kolkata and Ahmedabad. I'd like to experience Punjab and probably Kerala."

When she's travelling, Sarah says, she likes visiting locals and asking them to cook for her what they eat for dinner every night. "I want to know what home food is to them. Every city I've been to, I've had the most amazing food and I think if you were to look at just the restaurant-style food of each of these regions, then you're not getting the true experience."

"Keema is my go-to party dish. It's a crowd favourite and is just yummy."

Since she's here most of the time, many chefs in India are Sarah's closest friends. "Vicky Ratnani is a really good friend of mine and I like what Manish (Mehrotra) is doing. He's very talented and pushed the boundaries, and is one of the first innovative chefs in Indian cuisine, which is very cool. I think everyone is working really hard in the industry right now and it's a very exciting time in India and there's a good future coming."

And she wants to learn cooking not one Indian cuisine, but all of them. "I'm cooking with French techniques but my palate has changed and I crave more flavoursome food!" admits Sarah who sometimes cries when she eats spicy food, but can't stop herself from carrying on.

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From HT Brunch, December 15, 2019

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