She’s been the colourful face of authentic Indian cuisine in Queenstown and its surrounds for 30 years. Local Indian ‘queen of hospitality’, Shammi Sandhu has always been renowned for her depth of knowledge, delicious regional Indian dishes and passion for her beloved India.
Late last year – 34 years after her first foray into New Zealand’s hospitality industry, Shammi hung up her apron and retired from the restaurant industry, grateful for all that it has given her.
Shammi and her siblings, who include former Dunedin Mayor Sukhi Turner, grew up with an immense love for Indian food and culture, passing down recipes from their mum.
It was in 1987 when Shammi was in Dunedin staying with her married brother, also nicknamed Sukhi, that she discovered her passion for Indian food could earn her a good living.
Her now late husband MJ had remained back in Punjab working their farmland while she and their young sons spent time in Dunedin.
“I was staying with my brother and one night when the kids were in bed I decided to make a sample platter of lamb kebabs, pakora, bhaji, samosa and chicken tikka masala,” she says. An enterprising Shammi needed some money to support her visit so set off the next day on a Dunedin public bus to take her samples around the George Street delicatessens.
Little did she know how well they would be received with her first order doubled before she even got home to her brother’s house. “That first guy asked how much I wanted and I was taken aback. $70 popped into my head so I said that and believe it or not he paid that,” says Shammi. “That was a lot back in 1987.”
From there she advanced to Indian dinner events at Foxy’s above Robbie Burns Pub. Kiwi golfing legend Greg Turner, the brother of Shammi’s famous cricketing brother in law Glenn Turner, had invited her to join them there for drinks one night.
Those dinners were advertised locally and once again when Shammi was asked for a price a number came to mind so she gave it a go. Full-houses paid $27 a head for those dinners. The south couldn’t get enough of her quality Indian cuisine. “I would stay up after all the others were asleep and cook all of my food then cart it on the bus downtown to Foxy’s, relaying it there – one cardboard box at a time – on a trolley.” Her sister and sister in law helped out in service. Gigs at the local Law Society dinner followed, serving 120 to 130 people supper, along with an invitation to speak about Punjabi women at the Oamaru Coffee Club.
“As a result of all this word got out and it just grew,” says Shammi.
When she and MJ had to return to India awaiting their New Zealand residency approvals, Shammi encouraged her brother to carry on the momentum, which is where the first Little India Restaurant was born, in Dunedin.
There are now 11 Little Indias as part of a chain nationwide with another of Shammi’s brothers owning five at one stage.
In 1993 Shammi and MJ returned and made Queenstown their home, launching their own Little India in the resort in January, 1994. It was a huge success from opening day. They owned it for 18 years when they opened a slightly more upmarket Indian restaurant, Mantra, in Christchurch first, then Arrowtown. They owned Mantra Arrowtown for 15 years.
“I wanted to do things a bit differently with my own creativity, flair and décor,” says Shammi. “I put my own stamp on things and introduced customers to a range of new dishes from the different regions of India. People’s palettes were becoming exposed to a wider array of cultural diversity.”
Catering and cooking classes were delivered with Shammi’s own unique flavour.
The daughter of an Air Force and Air India Pilot, Shammi has always loved travel, but in 2018 MJ’s failing health forced her to abandon her immensely popular, personalised-guided, specially-designed boutique tours of India’s food regions. The best Indian cuisine served up by private chefs, often in heritage havelis, was always a strong focus of the tours which attracted guests from around the world. Sir Michael Hill and his wife, Christine Lady Hill, were on Shammi’s first tour and have been huge supporters of Mantra.
Sadly, MJ passed away from stomach cancer in June last year leaving Shammi shell-shocked, physically and emotionally exhausted. Lockdown had been perfectly timed for her to spend time nursing her beloved husband but by October Shammi says she realised she needed time to rest and grieve. “My heart wanted to be at home for some quiet time.”
In March this year local Indian restaurateur Saroj Kumar, who owns six other Indian restaurants, bought Mantra and is now continuing the legacy.
For a livewire like Shammi it’s taken a concentrated effort to “keep still”, but she’s now getting the hang of indulging in her own enjoyment instead of catering to other people’s. “For me my motto was always, ‘Today is today. What can we do tomorrow?’ to move forward every day.”
“Hopefully I’ll still do my cooking classes and when things open up again some of my tours,” she says. “Things always fall into place for me.” However, for now she says it’s just wonderful to have the freedom not to have to open the restaurant every day.