Ten million people saw the moment when Chetna Makan’s masala chai baklava failed to take her into the final of The Great British Bake Off series 5, but since that dark day, her stunning cookery books and popular YouTube videos have kept her centre stage. Her latest book is Chetna’s Healthy Indian Vegetarian, and in reading and cooking from it, I’ve fallen in love with her writing. There’s something magical about the gentle way she communicates – she’s tender about the culture which created this cuisine and immensely respectful of the ingredients. There’s also a quiet optimism about her world view. I asked her where that quality came from.
Chetna: Yes, I am optimistic. I think this is why I left home at 17 to go into the crazy Bombay world of fashion. But at 27, I had to leave behind everything I’d built up as a fashion designer overnight when I moved to the UK. I had nothing to start off with. I wanted to get into fashion here, but it would have been four or five hours travelling a day and I thought, I can’t do it.
Emma: Did you have family in the UK to support you?
C: No – I’ve got absolutely no relatives in this country, not even a cousin, which in Indian terms is shocking because you always find cousins. I worked for a while in a beauty salon, and then in retail, and I just tried to make this place as happy and comfortable as I could. I’ve had no training, apart from as a fashion designer, and I didn’t think of making food my career at all. But I don’t believe opportunities land in your lap. You have to go out and get them, and this what I’ve done all my life. That’s why I applied to do Bake Off – I had nothing to lose and thought, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ So I went in and just enjoyed it. That’s my optimism.
E: Not every baker on the show ends up with a publishing and broadcasting career like yours – why do you think it worked so well for you?
C: I think people can associate with the food I make because it’s genuine. This is how I eat. I’m not trying to follow trends, this is just me.
E: Is your mum a great cook?
C: Yes, she is. Amazing.
E: I know your mum’s a great cook – who taught her? Was it her mother?
C: Actually, no – her mum wasn’t a great cook. She learned through her newspaper, they used to print a recipe once a week.Every week she would cut it out and stick it in a scrapbook – that’s how she taught herself.
E: Because you aren’t surrounded by an Indian community in the UK, has your cooking become more anglicised?
C: Actually, no. This is exactly how my mum cooks, I haven’t done anything different. The basic spices are the same ones she uses. Interestingly, when I see the food many people in India put on social media, they often anglicise it more than people here. They’re trying to make it Western for an Indian audience.
E: For your latest book, you travelled to India and were invited to go inside the kitchens of some wonderful home cooks. How did you find those women?
C: It was all thanks to Instagram. I asked online if anybody had an Indian aunt or mum who was really fond of cooking and might talk to me – and I got lots of messages. Even somebody from America who said, ‘My mum’s an amazing cook, you must meet her, but she works all week.’ I went and she gave me all of her Sunday. I know how people are in India, so it shouldn’t have surprised me, but you know, they are just so welcoming. It was incredible.
E: You talk about how the kitchen is a sacred space to an Indian family.
C: Oh my gosh, so sacred. It’s quite basic but they come up with amazing dishes. There aren’t many gadgets; a lot of the kitchens still don’t have ovens. My own mum still has the portable oven from my childhood – it’s the shape of a slow cooker – and it moves from room to room. But it’s still not very common to have one.
Chetna and I start to cook her chapatti recipe together. We add beetroot purée to the spiced flour and two different types of alchemy happen – I cover my kitchen in vivid red splatters, while Chetna creates a silky dough using only one hand, rolls it expertly into perfect discs, and cooks them into stunning flatbreads to eat with the vibrant raita. It’s like witnessing a modest masterclass in life skills.
E: Are you happy with the way your career is going?
C: I would have loved to do a little bit more television, but that hasn’t happened.
E: Is that why you created your YouTube channel? You’ve become your own broadcaster.
C: It is such a joy – I’m literally a one-man band. I’m my own agent, I do my own videos, I shoot them on my phone, then I edit them, upload them, I answer all the emails, I talk to the brands and I do the book deals. I am the one person – I’m quite proud of that. And it’s odd, people have stopped me in India to chat in the street because they’ve seen my YouTube videos, which I find really amazing.
E: Do you want to do more now?
C: I don’t think I can do any more than what I’m doing and that’s plenty for me. I’ve still got kids and I don’t want to leave them, so I’m happy that I can do it on my own terms. My children filmed all my videos during lockdown.
E: Wow – but they’re 10 and 13!
C: Well, I also want to make sure that they chip in a little bit with Indian cooking and traditions because it’s so hard to educate them within their culture. We live in a very white area, it’s not really mixed at all. When my daughter was in primary school, she was the only Asian child. So it’s difficult for them to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, because there’s not much they can see and learn from here.
E: Do you think enough is being done to support diversity in our food culture?
C: Oh wow, that’s a really tough one. London lives in its own bubble where you can find almost any national and regional cuisine – Indo-Chinese, Nepalese, Burmese. You name it, you can get it. But if I look at where I am in Kent, there are no Indian restaurants here, it’s just Italian and English. I’m not sure if people are brave enough to start up in these places, but if they were there, I believe there would be people willing to try them. That’s my optimism again.
What spices do you always have in stock? Whole spices, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, chillies.
The ‘must-try’ recipe from your latest book? Spinach masala chickpeas.
Your go-to meal? Tadka dhal and rice.
What’s your food heaven? Anything cooked by my mum.
And your food hell? Cheese.
Your favourite meal cooked by someone else? My husband’s masala super noodles.
Your most-used piece of kitchen equipment? Chakla belan (wooden rolling pin and board used to roll out chapattis).
The best cooking advice you’ve ever received? Enjoy it.
Photographs: Sia Gupta
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