Thirty years ago, Sandringham wasn’t known for Indian food at all. What will it look like in another three decades?

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It would be entirely possible to pass through Sandringham in a car or bus and not notice anything unique about the section of shops in this central Auckland suburb at all. The shop fronts are mostly unassuming, the footpath grey, the little park at the south end of the suburb quiet. 

But open the window, and you might be able to, quite literally, smell it. A milky waft of chai from a food truck. An aroma of cumin and chilli from people clutching warm takeaway containers. The fresh, green smell of piles of coriander outside a small grocery store. 

Another look at the street will reveal why: almost every restaurant, food truck and grocery store in the area is South Asian, selling everything from soft Sri Lankan string hoppers to bubbly-skinned bitter karela to halal meat to spheres of vada inside pillowy pav buns. One of the travel agents has transliterated its name into Hindi and Sinhala on its sign, and if you look north, you’ll spot the chunky, ridged dome of the Bharatiya Mandir, a Hindu temple, on Balmoral Road a few hundred metres away. 

Sandringham Road has become a hub for South Asian restaurants, grocery stores and food trucks. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

Samrudh Akuthota (known as Sammy), operator of Satya Chai Lounge, grew up around the restaurants on Sandringham Road: his parent’s restaurant, Satya, was one of the earliest Indian restaurants on the street when it opened in 1999. Satya now has a Ponsonby location, too, while the Chai Lounge counterpart has an outpost on Karangahape Road. 

“When Satya started, there were the Khyber Spice Traders across the road, a printing shop, a pharmacy, a brothel, two fish and chip shops, a hardware shop…” he lists chirpily; I’m not the first journalist to call him asking these kind of questions, and he’s well-prepared. As Akuthota got older, the street started to change: more and more South Asian restaurants popped up. Businesses changed hands, but the increasingly Indian flavour of the suburb was undeniable. 

Data from the 2018 census shows that 19% of people in Sandringham arrived in New Zealand in the last 15 years, and 45% of the suburb has Asian heritage, compared to 28.2% of the country at large. 10% of people spoke Hindi and 2% of people spoke Panjabi. The number of people who identify as Hindu increased from 16% in 2006 to 19% in 2009, while the number of people who said they followed Islam decreased from 7% to 5% over the same period. 

Meanwhile, the cost of houses in the area has skyrocketed, in keeping with the rest of Auckland: a table on shows the median sale price of houses in the area increasing from $365k in 2014 to $1.171m in 2023 – lower than Grey Lynn ($460k to $1.148m over the same period) but much more than the nearby Avondale ($300k to $890k) which also has a relatively high percentage of people born in Asia and Hindi speakers.

“Friends from overseas come to visit and say, ‘It’s like you’re walking in India,’” Akuthota says. Instead of the abstract numbers of house prices – increases to which, he quickly points out, have been seen throughout the country – the changes to the suburb to him have felt more material. “In 2003, we once had a stolen scooter stashed in the dining room,” he says. Break-ins were frequent: customer’s habs and cash in the till were taken. 

Now, when Akuthota looks around the suburb, he sees a quite different demographic – and much less frequent thefts from businesses. The people living in the area “are the ones who can’t buy housing in Freemans Bay or something,” he says, a little wistful. 

So, what’s happening in Sandringham? Are the social and economic forces that made it a hub for South Asian food in the 1990s going to persist as commercial rents get higher and demographics change in the area? Will its Indian character survive?

Akuthota has witnessed the changes, but how did Sandringham become an undisputed hub for Indian food? He has one theory, offered a little uncertainly: “The temple is a huge institution, it’s an anchor point in the big city,” he says, suggesting that people come to the Bharatiya Mandir in Balmoral then pop to Sandringham, down the road. 

André Taber, a historian currently writing a book about the history of Chinese restaurants in New Zealand, says that the factors that led to Indian restaurants in Sandringham have something in common with Chinese restaurants on Dominion Road: immigration reform and cheaper, city-adjacent locations. 

When Taber developed a food-tour app for local community organisation Spice, he didn’t find “one solid story” explaining why Indians were drawn to the area. Khyber Spices, now gone, was one of the first Indian grocery stores that drew people to the area; an academic article from 2005 enthusiastically describes its dozens of varieties of basmati rice and roti, far more than available in most New Zealand supermarkets. Two halal butchers and the Valley Fruit and Vegetables store opened around the same time.

Indian restaurant Satya has become an institution. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

But contrary to what many would assume, Taber says that the first restaurant to open in 1990s Sandringham wasn’t Indian. The Doy Luang Thai restaurant opened in the 1990s, then the same site became the Fijian-Indian outlet Stans in 2001. After Stans closed, Auckland restaurant stalwart Satya – owned by Sammy Akuthota’s parents – opened on the street, where it remains. 

Another theory: one big outlet creates momentum that everyone else levers off. “I think Paradise started it,” says Paul, a genial taxi driver I meet in the line at vegetarian outlet Shubh on a Monday afternoon. He buys a bread pakora to share, filled with fluffy spiced potato. Since he moved to New Zealand, he’s pulled into Sandringham Road after countless night shifts to find something he wants to eat. “When you’re driving a taxi every day you want something to munch,” he grins, patting his paunch. 

“Paradise is so successful, everyone wants to copy it,” Paul says. “Monkey see, monkey do: we’ll start a restaurant in Sandringham.” 

Paradise is a Sandringham Road success story. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

Ah yes, Paradise: so popular there were once regular lines out the door and three outlets of the restaurant on Sandringham Road alone. With a storied history – including a split between the co-founders, who went on to form Hyderabadi buffet restaurant Barwarchi across the road – Paradise might be the first restaurant non-South Asian locals think of in Sandringham. “White people walk into Paradise and know that when they buy food it won’t be too spicy, it won’t be too crazy for them – it makes them come back,” says Mizba Mohammed, the restaurant’s operational manager.

Paradise put two of its outlets up for sale last year, and is no longer as visible in Sandringham as it once was, so is the business surviving? Mohammed assures me that all is well: they’ve opened an outlet in Saudi Arabia; run a food truck called Pista House around the corner from their main site in Sandringham; and recently opened a kebab and fried chicken shop in Mission Bay. 

“We were a small store at the start, and after good responses from customers enjoying our food, we expanded our business,” Mohammed says. When Paradise started, he says there was “potential in Sandringham,” but it seems to him that the restaurant has played “a big role” in encouraging more food outlets in the area. 

Part of Sandringham’s evolution into a food district has clearly followed this logic: restaurants have occupied different niches and had the space to serve regional Indian and Sri Lankan cuisines, attracting each other’s customers but also broadening the options for all who come to eat here. “Sandringham is where Indians go to eat,” says writer Perzen Patel, who sells curry pastes and runs food walks in Sandringham with her company Dolly Mumma. “There are many more options than the ‘Kiwi’ version of Indian food, the same 20 or 30 dishes at your regular Indian takeaway.” 

While food businesses have built on the momentum of each other’s success, Sandringham’s location has helped. The 2005 article looking at Sandringham in the context of migration notes its “relatively cheap housing”; it remains more affordable than nearby Kingsland or Mount Eden. Commercial rents are cheaper than CBD prices, but the area is still closer to town than areas of South Auckland with higher numbers of Indian migrants. 

Garry Patel, who runs the recently-opened Healthy Bites eatery, has perhaps the most outlandish theory of all: that Sandringham’s popularity with Indian outlets could have a linguistic cause. Sandringham sounds like Sandri-gram, and gram is an alternative spelling of gaon, the Hindi word for village. “The moment you hear ‘Sandringham’, you start thinking that it must be the Indian place,” he says. 

As with Malaysian restaurants in Wellington and Chinese restaurants on Dominion Road, immigration reform from 1987 helped create the circumstances for Sandringham’s flurry of South Asian food spots: running a hospitality business is an option for people who haven’t found other options for traditional employment. 

Indian restaurant Bawarchi. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

Part of the mystery of Sandringham, Perzen Patel thinks, is why it has the reputation as the Indian hub, when other areas have more Indians. “Mount Roskill is basically like a Little India,” she says. “And down the road from me in Takanini there are nine Indian stores, so if I can’t find what I want in one, I can always find it in the next.” Lots of Indians come to eat and shop in Sandringham, it’s true, but there are Indian grocery stores dotted around Auckland. It sometimes seems to her that non-Indian New Zealanders have chosen to understand just one area of the city as being visibly Indian, instead of seeing the diversity nested within many suburbs. 

People on Patel’s tours are always delighted to discover how cheap lentils and spices are in Sandringham stores, and when Bollywood music comes through the speakers, she beams when she sees them trying to resist dancing. She’d love to see more “ethnic” grocery stores working to feel welcoming to people who are less familiar with the cuisine. In ten years, maybe Sandringham will host more creative combinations of South Asian cuisines, more than anyone can imagine on their own.

Sandringham’s reputation as a South Asian hub is clearly enduring, as the 2005 article shows: businesses it mentions in the article, like a Muslim clothing store and Pacific church in an old cinema, are gone, but the sense that Sandringham is Indian has remained. “There are always businesses closing down, but also new businesses are also coming,” says Nithya Suresh, who runs the SS Supermarket focused on South Indian groceries. 

While the restaurants are often the most obvious place to get Indian meals in Sandringham, the grocery stores might actually be responsible for more eating. “People might go to an Indian restaurant and think ‘that’s nice, let me try it at home’, walk out the door and there are grocery stores selling those ingredients,” says Paradise’s Mohammed. 

One of those grocery store’s is Suresh’s SS Supermarket; with her husband, she also runs the Madras Cafe next door. It’s mango season when I walk in, and there are crates of kesar and banganapalli mangoes cushioned in foam netting. From the bottles of coconut oil – for hair – on the shelves, labelled with prices in rupees, to the faint buzz of the fluorescent lighting, I feel almost instantly nostalgic for the grocery stores of my childhood in India. 

After nearly two decades, Suresh has loyal customers around the country, who particularly come for South Indian ingredients harder to find at most North-India geared stores. People who have moved to Hamilton, Wellington or Napier will call her ahead when they’re in Auckland for a visit, asking her to set aside items they need. She serves a customer who contemplates a mango then buys a vada he pays for with coins, then keeps talking to me. 

“Nowadays people of all ethnicities love our Indian food,” Suresh says. She has customers bring in shopping lists from a recipe they’ve seen on a YouTube video or blog. North Indian food is “a lot more greasy”, so she prefers cooking South Indian dishes, often based on sweet-sour tamarind paste .. 

While her store has a wide variety of products, there’s food from the place she grew up that she still can’t get her hands on. “We can’t bring in the local food – like the food you get in the village, made with fermentation.” Sometimes her idli batter doesn’t rise to proper amounts of fluffiness in New Zealand’s cold weather, becoming filled with fungus instead. 

As well as the grocery stores, Sandringham has recently seen a flourishing of food trucks, mostly focused on South Asian street food. This is in the spirit of how people eat in India: dhabas, stalls that can be as little as a wall and some tarpaulins, serve fast-to-make, fast-to-eat food like fried noodles and frothy chai besides highways throughout the country. 

While Chai Wala Bhai makes vats of creamy tea and sells omelettes dotted with green chutney, and Paradise’s Pista House sells bowls of Hyderabadi haleem stew and biscuits to eat with chai just opposite, there’s a slightly different take on food trucks just down the road at Eat Love Repeat. When I drop by on a rainy Tuesday evening, Chef Balakrishna and his coworker are making burger patties, sprinkling them with a combination of spices (they won’t reveal exactly which ones). The location in the corner of a grassy lot, away from the main section of shops, requires some awkward teetering on a rock wall to get to the window, but they’re happy to chat. 

Spice Magic restaurant focuses on Sri Lankan food. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

Food trucks have allowed more diverse kinds of South Asian cuisine into Sandringham, Balakrishna reckons: “These are desi-style burgers – it’s our best offering for the customers,” he says. He likes that the food is a little scrappier, more homemade: the spices in the burger patties are the same ones he’d use in his cooking at home. 

There’s also a price factor: food trucks are a lower cost of entry than a commercial lease. “People are more comfortable in these places, they will compare the price to their pocket,” Balakrishna says. The food is certainly cheap: there’s not much on the menu over $15. Balakrishna assures me that Eat Love Repeat is expanding rapidly, with another food truck in Avondale and others on the way. 

“People come from Hamilton even to eat our burgers,” Balakrishna says. “I think there’ll be lots more food trucks in future here.” 

Even if almost all the current Sandringham Road business owners I speak to are optimistic, the South Asia flavour of the area isn’t guaranteed for the future. After all, things have changed before. 

Thirty years ago, Sandringham wasn’t known as a location for Indian food at all – and a century ago, there was no evidence whatsoever of it even being a restaurant district.  “Oh, the Norwegians,” exclaims Taber, the food historian, when I talk to him on the phone, rifling through his notes: Anders Eriksen, a Norwegian migrant, ran a general store at the current site of the Sandringham Superette from 1911. The current Smart Deal Bazaar was a Self Help supermarket in the 1960s. There were Chinese and Pacific grocery stores, a cinema, a fish and chip shop run by Dalmation migrants, butchers and greengrocers. 

Right now, it seems like the face of Sandringham is changing again: until recently, the shops now hosted an outlet of the upscale chocolate and ice cream manufacturer Miann. It’s now been replaced by Manna Delights, also selling fancy desserts – although flavours like pistachio and mango feature, closer to Indian ice creams. Lord Kitchener, a pub around the corner with craft beer on tap has a menu featuring tacos, Greek salad, fish and chips, pizza and beef burgers – the only faintly South Asian element of the food on offer is a vindaloo mayonnaise, which comes with the curly fries. 

Fancy ice cream stores are harbingers of gentrification. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

“I went [to Miann] and saw that one scoop of icecream is sold for $9 dollars! That’s not for Sandringham, that’s not an affordable price,” says Nithya Suresh, the grocery store owner. But she’s been here since 2005, and isn’t fazed. Sandringham “definitely will change” she says, and welcomes a more “multicultural” suburb for a more diverse business ecosystem. 

While shopkeepers and restaurateurs are mostly positive, they acknowledge it can be difficult to keep running their businesses. “It’s been hard since last year,” says Azeem Mohammed, of Bawarchi. “People are afraid to spend money outside [their homes], and there keeps being news that the economy is bad.” I reported this story over multiple visits to Sandringham in the afternoons and early evenings; many of the restaurants were empty, or near-empty, when I visited, although there were steady numbers of customers in the grocery stores. 

Viji Sivanadhani, a short and energetic woman who runs the Spice Magic restaurant focusing on Sri Lankan food, said their business has been hit by rapidly increasing food prices for products like cooking spray. And while Paradise’s Mizba Mohammed seems sanguine about the restaurant’s closed outlets in Sandringham and Botany, citing staff shortages, it’s notable that the new venture for the shop is fried chicken rather than their traditionally successful biryani and naan. 

There are signs Indian food is being edged out of Sandringham Road. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

While change might be inevitable, local businesses have ideas about what could help them. Garry Patel – who incidentally also runs a car repair business in New Lynn, and has repurposed car tires as remarkably comfortable seating for his restaurant Healthy Bites – reckons the area needs more car parking. Lots of available on-street parking is used by employees driving from Avondale, Mount Roskill and Epsom to work. Barwarchi’s Azeem Mohammed is pleased that the Sandringham Business Association is making an effort to improve lighting in the area and create some murals. 

Sammy Akuthota, a proud “city rat”, thinks that one of the best ways to protect Sandrinham’s unique qualities would be to build upwards. “I love density,” he says: denser housing would mean more people living in the area, potentially cheaper housing and commercial rents, and more nearby customers for local businesses. He’s suggested other ideas, including to the city council, like trying to brand the suburb as “Little India” – and to do the same for Dominion Road as “Chinatown” and the Korean hubs around Northcote as “Koreatown.” “But things change and evolve, these places can’t exist forever,” he says thoughtfully. “You can’t just brand an area when housing is changing so much.” 

Newer Indian immigrants often live in South Auckland, not Sandringham. There are two mandirs (Hindu temples) in central Manukau, and a dozen Indian food outlets in the area. Sandringham could become a secondary location for businesses thriving in South Auckland, instead of the other way round. In fact, this is already happening: Spice Magic, the Sri Lankan restaurant where Sivanadhani insists on making me a frilly onion dosa, started in Pakuranga 20 years ago. 

Spice Magic has been hit by rapidly increasing food prices. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

The Sandringham store, with newspapers in Sinhalaand young employees wearing cool sneakers, only opened last year. “We’re not so unique any more,” Sivanahani says, thinking about other Sri Lankan restaurants in the area. Sri Lankans have come to the store, Sivanadhani says, but one particular customer, a white woman, has been spreading the word in the local community and sharing their Instagram posts, attracting new customers. “We don’t advertise anything, people just come,” she says.

As I do interviews up and down the street, I see several visions of Sandringham’s future unfold. In one, the suburb’s Indian flavour was a fluke of luck, created by a confluence of factors that will never again be repeated. The South Asian visibility of the suburb will gradually fade over the next few decades, as the suburb’s relatively central location becomes increasingly desirable. 

Demographers predict that Auckland could add as much as 700,000 people to its population by 2038; maybe this growth will mostly be outwards, blocks of houses nibbling at the city’s northern and southern edges, while central suburbs become the domain of the very wealthy, more interested in glossy upscale eateries than Indian grocery stores and stalwart local food trucks. 

In another of my visions, the Chicking fried chicken outlet on Kitchener Road and Paradise’s new expertise in that same dish will be a harbinger of a greater variety of cuisines in Sandringham, dotted among the changing combinations of South Asian restaurants as businesses close then open in new forms. 

Or maybe the food trucks will encourage more people to develop commercial property in the area, creating a bigger shopping district with a wider variety of food. Suresh might be able to find the “village food” she misses from her childhood in South India; perhaps Sunil and Paul’s next debate about where to find Nepali food in Auckland will feature Sandringham locations, not only Parnell, Takapuna and New Lynn. 

The staff at Spice Magic. (Photo: Jin Fellet)

Alternatively, Eat Love Repeat’s smashed burgers with desi spices and Satya Chai Lounge’s combination of Indian dhaba fare and an astonishing selection of craft beers are the beginning of a Sandringham food culture that takes popular elements of Indian food and combines it with other cuisines. There’s a long tradition of Indian and Chinese food combining in northern India, but what about currizza? Smoky bitter-bright karela served alongside vegetables tender out of the hangi? 

In all versions of the future, it’s difficult to imagine Sandringham without jugaad, a Hindi word meaning resourceful, imaginative shortcuts, a more playful parallel to New Zealand’s buttoned up “number eight wire” attitude. Akuthota’s use of sacks and beer pallets as a cheap, stylish fit-out of the Satya Chai Lounge demonstrates jugaad. So does Garry Patel’s use of tyres from his car business in his food business, a sign at the front of Healthy Bites proclaiming the “exciting seating at back side”, even if the space is oddly laid out due to its past life as a grocery store. 

Perhaps the best jugaad I saw in Sandringham, and the one that filled me with the most confidence in the future of the street, was at Sivanadhani’s Spice Magic. Last year, the restaurant was a chaat house selling Mumbai-style street-food, complete with wall decals of glistening jalebis, people covered in Holi powder or taking photos of Instagram perfect bhel puri. Instead of changing the mural, she just added Sri Lanka themed stickers on top: both a cost-efficient repurposing and a creative way to acknowledge that all new food builds on what has come before. 

This feature was made with the support of Asia New Zealand Foundation.