The last time I saw Sabina Sehgal Saikia, she held my hand for the TV cameras, led me past platters laden with rice dishes, told me that rice was Indian Viagra and reached for a drink. That single image sums up my view of Sabina: irrepressible, extroverted and blessed with the ability to add life and laughter to the world around her.
Of course there was much more to Sabina than that single image. She could be brutal as she could be funny. For over a decade she was Delhi’s — no, India’s — leading restaurant critic and her scorn was widely feared in the food business. She could make restaurants with a single review. She could destroy them with a few well-chosen words of derision. (Just ask the folks at Veda which she stripped of all its trendy pretensions and which now survives as a better-looking Kwality’s almost entirely because Sabina destroyed it in the first week.)
Restaurateurs never understood that no matter how much Sabina laughed or drank with them, her ultimate loyalty was to the reader. People read her reviews to decide where to go for dinner and she would never, ever mislead them.
I remember being part of a panel discussion with her at a Chef’s Conference. One of the chefs protested that reviewers did not understand the pressures they were under. “Sometimes a chef is tired. Sometimes, at the end of the evening, he cannot give his best,” he explained.
“Oh yes,” retorted Sabina, “And when the chef is tired, does he give the guest a discount? Or does he charge full price anyway?” Her point was valid, just as her loyalty was clear.
If restaurants charge money then they must be prepared to be judged. Nevertheless, it took guts to be as blunt to an audience full of hundreds of chefs. But then, Sabina was nothing if not blunt.
Her contribution to the food world cannot be underestimated. A terrific cook herself (her momos beat the hell out of any restaurant version), she was also a curious eater. Whatever money she made from her journalism (especially after her husband Shantanu started making lots of money from his websites) she spent on eating.
Talk to Sabina about London restaurants and she would have eaten at all of the best ones, blowing up vast sums on large meals.
Mention molecular gastronomy and she would tell you how Ferran Adria cooked for her at the Singapore Gourmet Festival. Discuss Pacific Rim cuisine and she would tell you about restaurants in Sydney and the strengths of Tetsuya’s cooking.
She brought that formidable knowledge and experience to bear on Delhi’s restaurant scene, showing no patience with restaurateurs who were content to chum out the same old rubbish and being unfailingly encouraging of anyone who tried to do something new, different or difficult.
Of course I shall miss her as will her many, many friends. We will miss her laugh, her loyalty, her affection, her exuberance, her wit and her astonishing cooking.
But the loss is not just personal. India’s food scene has lost one of its pioneers, a critic who dared tell it like it was; who pulled no punches; who knew more about food than most restaurateurs and many chefs; and who showed us the way forward.
The next time you go to a restaurant and have a good meal, think of Sabina. If she hadn’t forced our restaurateurs to push for innovation and quality, we would all be eating very badly today.