Meet the Indian chef who ‘paints on plates’

Surabhi Sehgal beautifies everyday dishes with her deft hands and eye for colour

Powered by automated translation

Rava idlis adorned with rainbow-hued veggies. A Bombay sandwich with pleasingly symmetrical circles of cucumber, onion and potato. Beetroot khoba roti with snowflakelike patterns. Chef Surabhi Sehgal curates recipes that are a feast – not only for the taste buds, but also for the eyes.

The drool-worthy dishes, showcased as reels on her Instagram page @supaintsonplates, also stand out as they beautify mundane Indian dishes, from dosas and daal to kulfi and masala chai.

“Food presentation has been my passion from a young age as I believe we eat with our eyes first,” Sehgal tells The National. The chef and food stylist, who has lived in the UAE for several years, credits her deft hands, eye for colour and video-making skills for her mesmerising reels.

These feature everything from fluffy idlis being drenched in bubbling hot sambar and bowls of red daal and pristine white rice served on a crisp green banana leaf to luscious platters of sugar-free besan ladoos sprinkled with rose petals and pistachios.

“For me, taste and presentation go hand in hand. While working on a recipe, I try to create fresh and delicious flavours while retaining the vibrant colours of the ingredients,” she says.

I use blanching and ice-bathing techniques to retain the natural colours of vegetables
Surabhi Sehgal, chef and food content creator

And yet, Sehgal reveals, the recipe that made her go viral came about quite by accident. In the “garden uthappam” reel – which garnered over 1.1 million likes and more than 21 million views – we see Sehgal pouring a ladleful of sparkling white dosa batter on a heated pan, then adorning it with a batch of thinly sliced slivers of red and green veggies resembling a bouquet.

“I did not have time to shoot an elaborate video, just a box of cherry tomatoes in the refrigerator, so I thought of making a quick reel. I almost did not post it as I found it too simple. But everyone absolutely loved it and it made me realise the adoration was a result of its simplicity, which makes it easy for the audience to recreate.”

Sehgal also focuses on healthier versions of regional Indian food from across all states. Millets, microgreens and herbs, too, generously feature in her menus.

Using superfoods such as bajra, ragi and jowar, Sehgal offers a modern twist on age-old dishes. Think jamun (black plum) and yoghurt ice lollies, medicinal ajwain leaf pakoras and banana and millet koftas.

Brass and copper utensils are known for their therapeutic properties and they go perfectly well with my style of cooking
Surabhi Sehgal

Using fresh local produce, the chef recreates these dishes using innovative cooking techniques that, she says, she has mastered over the years. “I never overcook vegetables, and mostly use blanching and ice-bathing techniques to retain their natural colours,” she reveals. The same goes for her vibrantly hued chutneys and side dishes, which are replete with coriander and curry leaves.

The cookware she uses, meanwhile, are made of copper and brass. Cooking in these utensils collected over the years, the chef says, transports her to her grandmother's kitchen. “Traditionally, these utensils are known for their therapeutic properties and they go perfectly well with my style of cooking,” says Sehgal.

Born in scenic Dehradun at the foothills of the Himalayas, Sehgal says her childhood was immersed in food and art. Her father is a scientist and poet, while her mum is a schoolteacher who spends a lot of her leisure time painting.

“When I was young, my mother sent me for painting lessons hoping I might inherit her talent. My father felt I shared his love for languages and persuaded me to study literature, but my heart really belonged in the kitchen,” she says.

Her passion for cooking began when she was only nine and was inspired by watching her grandmother spend hours cooking dishes that were a labour of love. After marrying her high school sweetheart, a hotelier, Sehgal lived in six countries, where she worked as a banker, in public relations, in a hotel boutique and also dabbled with fashion and interior design. It took her many years to finally purse her passion for cooking.

“I might not be a painter or a writer as my parents wished me to be, but I am definitely an artist. Only, I paint on plates,” she says.

Currently, she is busy experimenting with ingredients that lend themselves well to artistic presentation. When not cooking or creating food pop-ups, Sehgal spends her time as a content creator shooting videos.

Her family, she says, are her first line of tasters and are usually very honest with their feedback. Her work is her creative outlet and her loyal, ever increasing audience is always asking for more recipes. One of the best compliments for her food styling came from an Instagram follower whose mother had completely lost her appetite after an aggressive medical treatment.

“I was told after seeing one of my videos, she asked to be fed after many days. I cried reading this message and thanked the universe for giving me this unique opportunity to touch lives,” she says.

Updated: December 27, 2023, 6:59 AM