“Whenever I’m thinking of an idea for a book, I want it to be something completely different,” says food writer Chetna Makan from her home in Broadstairs, Kent. Chetna creates and tests new recipes from her kitchen, incorporating Indian flavour combinations into accessible recipes. “Each recipe I create has my touch, whether I’ve added some spice or something different to make it memorable.”
Evoking memories is intrinsic to Chetna’s cooking, and she often references flavours and dishes she encountered many years ago. Born in a small town in Central India called Jabalpur, Chetna often cites recipes from her childhood. “The smell of ghee always reminds me of me coming home from school and I could tell my mum was cooking as soon as I made it to the steps of the house,” she says. “Many of the dishes I grew up with included cardamom, which is why I’m such a big fan. Saffron and coriander also feature heavily in my recipes. They get used again and again in different contexts.”
Although having always been interested in food, Chetna didn’t always know she would pursue it as a career. She studied fashion design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Mumbai and didn’t cook much for the first few years while studying as there was no kitchen in her flat. “Once I moved to a place with a small kitchen I would cook every chance I got.” Her creative nature is why she is never concerned about making perfect-looking cakes or meals, and instead focuses on interesting flavour combinations. “That’s very important to me, and where I get to explore my creativity.”
Having finished her studies, she worked in retail in the UK before her friend urged her to apply to The Great British Bake Off. After reaching the semi-final of the show in 2014, her creative approach to flavour and down-to-earth personality led to the success of five books; she has just released her sixth, titled Easy Baking, with over 80 simple, sweet and savoury recipes. “For many of my books I have been able to go to India, which is really helpful because I am then buzzing with new ideas,” Chetna says. For her book Chai, Chaat and Chutney, she travelled to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, discovering an “amazing variety” of street food. “But for this particular baking book, I looked more to what my family enjoys. We love tiramisu for example, so for my take on it I added lots of chocolate and rose. It’s quite stunning.”
With Indian influences underpinning Chetna’s dishes, thankfully she has seen it become much easier to source spices at the supermarket since she moved over to the UK. “We used to go to one of the biggest supermarkets in the country when we first moved here, and they didn’t have anything,” she says. “Now, they have two aisles of ingredients for all different cuisines. I am so happy to have seen that change. It’s great to see that people are buying these ingredients and using them in their dishes.” With her books, Chetna makes sure she only uses ingredients that are readily available in the UK. “That was my first aim, I wanted to make sure anyone could create these recipes.”
The recipe development process requires focus and Chetna makes sure she has quiet time in the kitchen, jotting down notes as she works. She considers the environmental and monetary cost of ingredients and couldn’t bear to see anything wasted due to incorrect proportions or timings, so is rigorous when it comes to testing. “It would break my heart if someone made something but it wasn’t right so they had to throw it away, so I can proudly say that all of my recipes work,” she says.
Her children often bake with her at weekends, and quality time with family is also at the heart of Chetna’s dishes. Her recipes are designed for little effort, the idea being that she has more time to spend with her loved ones. For celebrations, she will make a mango, cardamom and coconut cake, or an elderflower pineapple upside-down cake. “I made that just the other day, and sprinkled some elderflowers from the garden on top. It looked like I had spent hours on it, but it is actually really simple and straightforward!”
For a mid-week dinner, she will often make chana dal stuffed yoghurt bread or potato curry puffs. “You can get them in India in corner shops,” she explains. “They serve them cold. They will be made in the morning and sold until the evening. I make them exactly how they do, in puff pastry, but my recipe is a little bit richer in taste.”
Potato Curry Puffs
You will find many variations of curry puffs from different parts of the world, though where I come from we call them vegetable patties. In this recipe I use only potatoes, instead of mixed vegetables. The curry powder is the main flavour, marrying well with the coconut cream, while puff pastry is the perfect carrier for this delicious filling.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
1 leek, finely chopped
¾ tsp salt
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp mild curry powder
2 medium-sized Désirée or maris piper potatoes (roughly 500g), peeled and cut into 1.5cm pieces
160ml can coconut cream
2 x 320g pack ready-rolled puff pastry
Plain flour, for dusting
2 tbsp milk or egg, for brushing the puffs
1. Heat the oil in a pan, add the onions and cook for 5 minutes until soft. Next, add the leek and cook for another 5 minutes over a low heat. Add the salt, chilli and curry powders, followed by the chopped potatoes, and mix well.
2. Add the coconut cream, cover and let it cook over a low heat for 10 minutes until the potatoes are done and there is no liquid. Let it cool completely.
3. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/gas. Line two baking trays with nonstick baking paper. Unroll each sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured work surface and roll out to an additional 2.5cm bigger on all sides. Cut each pastry sheet into 4 equal circles, or rectangles if you prefer.
4. Place the cooled mixture on one half of each shape, brush milk around the edges, then fold the unfilled half of the pastry over the filling and crimp the edges to seal. Brush with milk and place on the prepared trays. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden and crisp. Serve warm.
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs, video and recipe courtesy of Chetna Makan.
Chetna's Easy Baking: With a Twist of Spice is published by Octopus Publishing Group.