Former Great British Bake Off contestant Chetna Makan gives everyday Indian food a vegetarian spin
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Chetna Makan is not the kind of host who’d sling a bowl of chopped iceberg lettuce at you and consider it a salad. Oh no. In fact, the food writer and former Great British Bake Off contestant has very strong views on salad.
“I can’t deal with just leaves,” she explains firmly, a slight laugh in her voice. “This just is not for me.
“I want something to bite into,” she clarifies, and “a bit of substance” is paramount, which is arguably what makes her the ideal recipe writer to turn her attention to veg.
So often, plant-based options are lacklustre and under seasoned, watery and limp, or feeble imitations of meatier dishes. Vegetarians have long been fobbed off with plates of leaves; few croutons thrown on top, or flavourless mushroom risottos and goat’s cheese tartlets. Things are undoubtedly improving, but vegetables are still criminally underestimated.
But in her new cookbook, Chetna’s Healthy Indian Vegetarian, Makan emboldens greens and intensifies their flavour – “adding punch”, providing recipes that robustly push everything from pea shoots and tomatoes to mangetout and cabbage, to work harder.
So no, you won’t find a plethora of leafy salads gracing the pages, but you will find a grated beetroot and carrot concoction zingy from lime and crunchy with peanuts, a lentil and mango salad, a toothsome mix of grilled corn and red onion, as well as a rasam (a soup-like stew) of garlic and tamarind, and yoghurt sandwiches, stuffed with slivers of carrot, chilli and coriander.
The premise is the same as the prequel, Chetna’s Healthy India, in that the recipes are designed to be swift, straightforward and “happen to be good for you” – but vegetarian this time as well. “People think Indian food will take forever to cook – ‘I’ll have to soak this, I’ll have to make this and then I’ll have to marinate this’ – actually, everyday Indian food is not like that,” says Makan (41), explaining that you might have deep fried pakoras and puri on the weekend, but day-in, day-out? Not so much. “That’s a picture created just because of the takeaway industry,” she says with a sigh.
“People think it’s really heavy and it’s only supposed to be a treat, and it’s only supposed to be Friday. All those things are just wrong, because we eat [everyday Indian food] every single day!”
The dishes featured are ones that are widely eaten in homes in India and include recipes busy, working Indian women shared with Makan on a research trip to Delhi (“In India, mostly women cook at home still”) – and the book is a chance to provide a balance to ubiquitous korma and masala curries.
“I have tried to share really varied types of curries,” she says. “Not what people think are curries, but how they really are.” Like her roast tomato and papad curry – which uses raw papad (poppadoms). “[It’s] such a unique curry but it’s not something that I’ve invented, it’s something cooked in India all the time.”
Just like those yoghurt sandwiches, which are “a very popular sandwich in India” says Makan, who was born in Jabalpur. “It’s like a ham and cheese sandwich over here.”
The book also reflects her mother’s cooking, which has become her own. “All my inspiration comes from her,” says Makan, adding: “She doesn’t use anything ready-made. Even the tomato puree, she purees herself!
“The generation she is and in India, there were no such things available,” she explains. “The only thing we actually bought from outside was ready-made paneer.”
She describes her mother’s cooking as “quite simple” and always made from scratch, daily. “She still makes a dish for lunch separately and then makes a dish for dinner separately, and when she comes and visits, she can’t understand if I make a big pot of dhal that we eat it for two or three days. She just doesn’t get it! Because to her, to eat the same food for three days is too much.
“She makes it fresh every day, so she just makes enough that my mum and dad can eat and there is not anything left.”
Makan has a real love of, and interest, in how people – be it her mother, or the women she met in Delhi – cook at home in their own kitchens. “Some of them had these utensils which were their grandmother’s and they just had worn out, but they were still solid,” she says, recalling her trip. “I compare it to myself – [there were] no kitchen gadgets at all, just a basic stone to grind and no big machinery and mixers and blenders, nothing.
“It’s just so interesting,” she adds, “watching people cook in their element.”
And the cooking itself she finds transformative. “It still just makes me so happy. There’s something about the end result, where even if you’re not cooking for anyone, even if you’re just cooking for yourself, to sit down and enjoy that meal is just amazing.”
- Chetna’s Healthy Indian Vegetarian by Chetna Makan, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £20 (octopusbooks.co.uk).
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