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A legacy of spice

28 May 2021
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A parat of spices is where the magic began for Little India’s founders Joanna and Sukhi Gill.

Pies and chips were a popular takeaway during the 1980s in Dunedin. But a young couple from England decided to add aromatic food to the mix, paying homage to a very special kitchen in India. Words Shelley Robinson,  Photos Charlie Rose Creative

In a kitchen in Chandigarh, India, a woman is cooking. As she selects spices for her garam masala from a parat, Joanna Gill, a young British woman, looks on. She is careful not to touch anything, or speak, but she watches every move mother-in-law Premjit Kaur Gill makes.

A few years later, the women are in another kitchen: this time in Dunedin, New Zealand. It is 1988, and there is a flurry of activity. The kitchen sits above a dairy owned by Joanna and her husband Sukhi. It has a Formica table, linoleum floor, large stainless-steel sink and small electric stove. Joanna and Premjit are cooking as quickly as they can, with the line for their lamb curry winding through the dairy and out the door. Sukhi gives out free cans of soft drink to placate the people waiting. They will sell out within the hour.

From these two kitchens and three people, the story behind Little India’s restaurants was born. Though the story spans thousands of kilometres and 16 restaurants, all roots lead back to Premjit’s kitchen in Chandigarh.

There is a soft smile on Joanna’s face as she sits at her Clearwater home in Christchurch, remembering the first time she met Premjit.

“It was before we got married. We were living in England and she gave me a sari. For me, that was her acceptance of me,” the quietly spoken Joanna says.
But perhaps the higher honour was Joanna’s presence in Premjit’s kitchen.

“Few people are allowed in Mum’s kitchen,” says Sukhi, looking at his wife across the study, “but you were.”

Joanna was already a chef, working at an eye hospital in Worcester. When she married Sukhi she was invited into her mother-in-law’s kitchen to learn. She would quietly observe as Premjit flew around the kitchen, grinding spices, cutting, simmering, tasting and adding.

Dad And Premjit

Sukhi with his mother Premjit Kaur Gill, who still trains all Little India chefs. PHOTO: Supplied

“Because she concentrates while she is working, she doesn’t like talking. I was not allowed to touch, so I would just observe. She could make a feast so quickly. It doesn’t matter who arrived when. And it still happens to this day,” says Joanna.

Joanna learnt two “basic” meals – chicken curry and koftas.

“When we were in the kitchen, she insisted on speaking Punjabi, so I learnt all the Indian names for the spices, which was a little confusing at the beginning,” she says.
But the method worked. The magic of Premjit’s food passed from hands to eyes.

In 1986, Sukhi, then an accountant, somewhat surprised Joanna by announcing they should move to New Zealand from their home in Ilford, London, after visiting his sister Sukhinder Turner.

“I just knew this would be the right place to bring up kids. What I saw in Dunedin then, is nobody locked their houses, kids played in the streets together and treated each other’s houses as home. After living in London, I just thought it would be nice for our kids to have this opportunity,” he says.

Sukhi is an exuberant man. You sense he doesn’t know the meaning of impossible. And so, the couple, with their two young children, Arjun and Sameena, shifted to New Zealand.

While London was heaving with a smorgasbord of Indian, Italian and Middle Eastern restaurants, Dunedin’s cuisine at the time consisted mainly of chips, pies and burgers, with a few Chinese restaurants and a couple of fine-dining places.

“It was like going back 20 years,” recalls Joanna with a smile.

But this created an opportunity for the couple to introduce North Indian cuisine to the city. They bought a dairy and fish and chip shop in Ravensbourne in 1988, about six months after their third child, Premi (named after Premjit), was born. When Premjit visited with her husband, she convinced Sukhi and Joanna to try selling some Indian food too.

Joanna and Premjit set to work preparing lamb curry in the cramped kitchen above the dairy.

“We started on a Friday and a Saturday. The demand was so much we couldn’t cope and I had to give them [the customers] free soft drinks to keep them calm,” says Sukhi, as his arm waves to demonstrate the lines.

Dairy 1986

Sukhi and Joanna at their dairy in Ravensbourne, Dunedin, where they first served Indian food. PHOTO: Supplied

Every week they sold out. The trio had successfully tapped into a cuisine that Dunedin people wanted more of – even though, for some, it was unfamiliar.

“I remember asking one woman when she came back how she had found it and she said, ‘It wasn’t very spicy.’ I asked her what she had, and she had just eaten the rice. I just said, ‘Oh, try putting a bit of lamb with it this time.’ Because there wasn’t anything like it, perhaps she thought it was like Chinese fried rice or something,” smiles Joanna.

Sukhi and Joanna wanted to do more. They wanted to open a restaurant dedicated to bringing the taste and flavours Sukhi had grown up with in Premjit’s kitchen to Dunedin. That meant true authentic recipes with no sugar and the secret garam masala Premjit had taught Joanna.

Sukhi phoned his friend Manjit Gujral, who owned an Indian restaurant in Sydney, for advice. He told him to visit and learn at his restaurant.

“He said home cooking is not really commercial. You can’t do it on a longer-term basis due to the volume of food. So I would have to learn,” he says.

Sukhi stood in Manjit’s kitchen, as Joanna had once done in Premjit’s, and carefully wrote everything down in a little red book – from the design of the kitchen and the shape of the tandoor to the length of the skewers. When he returned to New Zealand, he transferred those notes to another red book, this time adding in the recipes Joanna and Premjit designed – including that for the all-important garam masala. All recipes had to be worked out by sight by Joanna because Premjit never used them.

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Sukhi has retired from the business, but he has a keen interest in what is happening in the kitchen.

They found a spot to lease in Saint Andrew Street, signing up on the spot with the owner who had the second-hand dealers next door. In 1991, they opened their doors.
Sukhi and Joanna’s son, Arjun Gill, still has both red books. And the recipes so carefully weighed and measured by Joanna and Sukhi are still used today.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. After the initial “honeymoon” period that followed their opening, Joanna and Sukhi nearly closed the doors for good.

“Slowly we found that customers had disappeared. And at that stage it was cheaper for me to close the restaurant because we were heading towards Christmas. So we went travelling with the children around the country,” says Sukhi.

But in March, after they switched from bain-maries to table service, the customers came back.

“I think the Dunedin people felt sorry for me and said, ‘Look, let’s go support Sukhi,’” he says with his big smile. “And the students, when they did their OE trips, they got used to Indian food. They came back and word spread about getting good Indian food. I don’t know how it spread. From there we never looked back really.”

Creating a chain of restaurants was never in their plans, for the simple reason that they were too busy. But their customers had other ideas.

“A couple of guys from Queenstown came in and said, ‘Sukhi, you should be in Queenstown.’ So, we had a look and opened there. And then somebody said, ‘Sukhi you need to be in Christchurch,’ so that’s how we grew,” he says.

And grow they did – but not just in restaurant numbers. As they brought over more staff from India, they grew close to their extended families.

Sukhi asks his wife: “How many births have you been at now where they have asked for you personally?”

“Six or seven,” she nods, “Because the women would come over here and not have any family, so I would be there. That was quite an honour for me.”

Some staff have even gone on to own a Little India themselves, like Bobby Arora, who has two restaurants in Auckland.

“He was 22 and came and lived with us. He crashed my car and blew up my kettle,” says Joanna with a laugh.

“I used to work in the restaurant and I said something to him as he came through the door with a tray of glasses and he dropped it because he thought I was telling him off.
“It is so wonderful seeing all his children growing up,” she says.

When the business franchised in 2008, Sukhi and Joanna helped many of their staff finance their own restaurants.

Today, their son Arjun is brand manager. He still remembers the dairy where it all began but, as you’d expect of a toddler, not due to the Indian food.

“We used to get $1 of pocket money and he [Sukhi] used to give it to us out of the till. We would hand it back and buy lollies. Dad always used to say, ‘If you save it you can buy more,’ but I always handed it straight back to him,” he laughs, as Sukhi shakes his head smiling.


Joanna and Sukhi’s son Arjun Gill grew up in his parents’ restaurant. Now, he is brand manager of Little India.

In spite of the time that has passed, the link to Premjit’s kitchen is still strong. Arjun visits her once a year – not to learn how to cook though.

“I’ve been trained in eating by my grandmother, but not so much the cooking. She just keeps on feeding you,” he grins.

But Premjit still trains all Little India’s chefs, not only ensuring the consistency of the food is maintained nationwide but making sure they are “good people”.

Arjun has listened for about an hour as his parents have told the story about how the legacy began – filling in any information they might have missed from stories he has heard before.

When it comes time for him to answer what he feels their contribution has been to cuisine in New Zealand, he is overwhelmed by emotion. He cannot speak, but that silence conveys more gratitude and love than any words he could have chosen, as well as admiration for his parents – who took risks and worked so hard to bring his grandmother’s aromatic food to New Zealand.

Both Sukhi and Joanna have stepped back from the business now, knowing it is in good hands with Arjun. But, understandably, it was difficult for them. The roots from all the Little India restaurants run deep, tracing back to that little kitchen with the Formica table and Premjit’s kitchen in Chandigarh.

There is a painting hanging on a wall in their study. A man crouches on the street, with determination etched on his face, pounding down on some metal with his tools. For Sukhi, that expression means a great deal.

“I see myself in that painting when I opened the restaurant. From being an accountant to being a cook – I had to take a bit of flak: ‘Sukhi, what are you doing?’
“But to me, he looks so proud and he knows what he is doing.”

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