Spice Trail to Sandringham

20 Aug 2020
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Alexia Santamaria meets a family whose restaurants blend tradition and innovation. Just like their restaurant Satya Sandringham’s sought-after plates of Dahi Puri, the secret to success appears to be the right combination of ingredients.

Some Auckland restaurants become go-tos for reliably good food from a certain part of the world. For fans of South Indian cuisine, the Satya group of eateries is definitely that place. From one small shop in Hobson street in 1999 to three restaurants, two chai lounges and a cocktail bar, the Akuthota family have a loyal and loving following – one that shows no sign of going anywhere soon. Satya Sandringham – their second restaurant, which opened in 2003 – has always been special as it was the first Indian restaurant in what has now become known as Auckland’s own Little India, the Sandringham shops.

Head to this part of Roskill Development any night of the week and you’ll be welcomed by the heady wafting scent of curry, flatbreads and marinated meats cooking on charcoal and in giant pots in one of the many Indian and Sri Lankan food outlets. The Akuthotas subsequently opened other Satya branches (K Road, Ponsonby and Mt Eden) but Sandringham is extra special as it’s also the site of their first Chai Lounge, a secret corridor beside the original restaurant leading to an enchanting space where people now regularly gather for street food-style sharing snacks and matching craft beer. It’s a little bit magical with coffee sacks draped from the ceiling and walls, crates and wood used for stools and fairy lights glistening above. Almost anyone who is a regular here will start with a plate of their delicious Dahi Puri. It’s become one of those iconic Auckland menu items. It’s interesting because Dahi Puri itself is not revolutionary, in fact it’s a pretty standard Indian street food dish, commonly served by roadside vendors in Mumbai, and available in quite a few places in Auckland.

So why do people come back over and over again for the ones at Satya?

“It’s really funny,” says Padmaja Akuthota, co-founder of the Satya group, as she talks to me over tea in their Sandringham Chai lounge with her husband Swamy “We both think it’s something to do with the combination of New Zealand’s amazing dairy, our tamarind sauce and the spice mix we sprinkle on top. When we go home to India and make it for family and friends there, it’s never as good as what we make here,” says Swamy. Satya’s Dahi Puri has been a hit since it first appeared on the Akuthota family’s menu. People couldn’t get enough of this delicious mini stack of house-made crispy puri (a kind of wheat cracker) topped with boiled potato, clouds of creamy yoghurt, a swirl of tamarind sauce, chopped coriander and finished with a dusting of Satya’s spice mix. It’s a eat-in-one-go kind of affair – trying to do it in two or three bites won’t end well for you, or your clothes. This is food to be consumed decisively, then savoured as the creamy, spicy, sweet, salty, tangy flavours fill your mouth. It’s multi layered in both taste and texture and for most people – it’s literally love at first bite. One plate is never enough.

The story behind the Chai Lounge where we’re chatting, never fails to get a laugh. Sammy (Padmaja and Swamy’s son) wanted to bring his parents’ incredibly popular food into a modern small plate format, to be consumed alongside craft beer and cocktails. He wasn’t sure the idea was going to go down well so sneakily waited till they were out of the country and converted the area behind the existing restaurant into a shabby chic, ultra cool hangout – all on a budget of $800. “I used tables we got for free, crates, and sacks as decor. It created a really rustic feel that people loved from the get-go, thank goodness!” And even though the Chai Lounge menu is very different to the original restaurant which still operates out front, the Dahi Puri still take pride of place “There would be an outcry if we removed them, people just love them. We serve them at all the restaurants; I’ve been helping Mum and Dad assemble these since I was little. We think we sell somewhere around four millions pieces a year, maybe more.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since Swamy and Padmaja “accidentally” founded what would become the Satya empire (they were asked to cater for two thousand people at the Balmoral temple in 1997 when they arrived in New Zealand and it was a huge success, despite neither of them having a hospitality background). They now represent the changing face of Indian cuisine, especially in Sandringham where one part of their space is still largely traditional, while the other caters to modern tastes and eating styles. It’s inspiring to see an eatery evolve in this way, and we feel sure whatever they do next will be a huge success – as long as they never take those Dahi Puri off the menu.

Chai Lounge and Satya Sandringham are at 515 Sandringham Road in Sandringham.
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