An interview with Chetna Makan featuring her tikki recipe
Chetna Makan, two-time Great British Bake Off alumna, talks to us on the joy of cooking and baking, balancing sweet treats with healthy dishes and the inspiration behind her latest cookbook.
Having made it to the semi-final of 2014’s The Great British Bake Off, won 2016’s The Great Christmas Bake Off and recently released her fourth cookbook, Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Vegetarian, Chetna Makan knows a thing or two about packing a flavourful punch with healthy meals and decadent sweet treats.
“Cooking has always been a part of my life because my mum is a great cook,” explains Chetna. “I love to cook for friends and see people enjoying my food.”
However, it wasn’t until she moved with her husband from India to Kent in 2003 that her passion for baking began to prove.
“I have a very sweet tooth – I fell in love with Victoria Sponge when I moved here 17 years ago. And given that my mum always made my birthday cakes, I wanted to be able to do the same with my own two children,” says Chetna.
Queen of flavour
When The Great British Bake Off started airing, Chetna immediately became a massive fan of the show and her passion for baking continued to rise. From birthdays to coffee mornings, whatever the occasion Chetna would bake for it.
Eventually, after much persuasion from friends and family, she applied for the fifth season of Bake Off thinking nothing would come of it. Four months later Chetna was on the show.
“I had a great time on Bake Off. Obviously it was nerve-wracking, but it was such an amazing experience. Mel, Sue, Paul, Mary and the whole production team were brilliant. I loved being in the tent and made such great friends,” says Chetna.
“When it came to going back for The Great Christmas Bake Off I had second thoughts about putting myself under such pressure again, but we all had a lovely time. It’s such a feel-good show and I’m still a huge fan.”
Merging the traditional recipes and flavours she’d grown up with alongside classic British bakes, it’s little wonder Paul Hollywood nicknamed Chetna the ‘queen of flavour’. However, she works hard to balance her penchant for sweet treats with healthy meals, the proof of the pudding being Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Vegetarian.
“This is a follow-up to my third book, Chetna’s Healthy Indian, and I created them both to challenge the misconception that many people have of Indian food. People are so surprised that I eat the curries you find in Indian restaurants and I’m not the size of a house,” she laughs.
“I want to show that what we actually cook and eat at home every day in India is usually quite healthy. Plus, because my husband is vegetarian – and the kids and I are too 95% of the time – I thought it was the perfect way to demonstrate how tasty vegetarian meals can be.”
Passage to India
Unlike Chetna’s Healthy Indian, which is filled with the recipes she and her family have been making for years, Chetna travelled further afield for inspiration for her new book.
“I went to India for two weeks last June to research recipes. My friends and sister asked people they knew if they would let me into their kitchens to watch them cook.
I wasn’t sure how they’d react, but everyone was so lovely and welcoming,” says Chetna.
“Ten different women cooked me the dishes they and their families love. One woman cooked 10 dishes for me within an hour in the smallest of kitchens. It was amazing! I had a brilliant experience and came back bursting with ideas.”
Chetna makes a conscious effort to make her meals a bit healthier and has some easy tips to do so.
“Have a rough idea of what you want to cook in the week ahead. That way you’ll only buy the stuff you need,” she explains. “Cooking with as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible will not only keep your cooking healthy, but extra tasty too.”
Chetna also has some advice on store cupboard essentials.
“I always have plenty of rice, wholemeal flour and different types of lentils. Spices like chilli, garam masala, turmeric and cumin seeds are my go-tos and having chickpeas in means you can easily rustle up soups, curries or stews,” she says.
“The key to tasty vegetarian cooking is ensuring you pack it with flavour, so being clever with your spices is vital.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic putting her cookbook plans on hold, Chetna is still connecting with her audience via her 100,000-follower-strong YouTube channel, Food with Chetna, since launching it in 2016.
“More people are working from home than ever during the COVID-19 outbreak and they’re looking for new things to cook. To help, I started posting a recipe for the first 30 days of lockdown – with my kids helping with filming – but I’m posting about five a week now. I’m hoping to showcase some recipes from Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Vegetarian on it too,” says Chetna.
Cooking is so unifying, and it’s a great way to connect and share a love of cooking with people around the world.”
Potato, sweetcorn and spring onion tikki
Healthy Indian: Vegetarian MAKES 20 SMALL TIKKIS
“I’ve found these tikkis to be the most popular snacks on canapes at any party. They’ve been tried and tested many times, and every time they come out a winner. They’re so easy to make, and the best thing is you can prepare them in advance and reheat them in the oven. They even taste great at room temperature. Serve with a coriander or tamarind chutney.”
3 potatoes, about 600g, peeled and diced
200g tinned sweetcorn, rinsed and drained
6 spring onions, finely chopped
1 green chilli, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cornflour
1 teaspoon chaat masala
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon chilli powder
Boil the potatoes in a pan of salted water until soft. Drain well, then mash thoroughly in a bowl. Leave to cool.
Add all the remaining ingredients, except the oil, to the mash and use your hands to mix well.
Take lime-sized portions of the mixture and shape them into flat oval patties. Repeat +until all the mixture has been used.
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a flat pan or skillet over a medium heat. Once hot, add the tikkis (working in batches as necessary) and fry for a couple of minutes on each side until golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.
These will keep in the fridge for three to four days. Reheat in a pan or in a hot oven before serving.
Chetna’s Healthy Indian Vegetarian by Chetna Makan, published by Mitchell Beazley, £20 hardback (octopusbooks.co.uk)