Chetna Makan hogged the limelight with the renowned Great British Bake Off-2014 show. Though a semi-finalist, the Indian-origin chef won many hearts by infusing traditional Indian flavours with Western bakes. She authored five bestsellers on Indian food from 2016. Her next book will be launched in June 2022
Born and brought up in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur, Chetna Makan pursued a career in fashion designing at NIFT and landed a job in Mumbai. In 2004, she moved to Kent in the UK along with her entrepreneur-husband Gaurav Gupta. While cooking has always been her passion for this 42-year-old chef-author, she fell in love with baking while making cakes and cookies for her children Sia and Yuv.
Chetna Makan came to limelight with her entry into the Great British Bake Off-2014. Though a semi-finalist, the Indian-origin chef won many hearts with the unique cooking style – infusing traditional Indian flavours with Western bakes. The popular baking show inspired her to seriously pursue a career in cooking and that’s when Chetna gave wings to the creative soul in her, She launched her YouTube channel (Food with Chetna) and began to write cookbooks, which turned out to be best-sellers and won her laurels for making Indian food popular among the foodies across the world.
Till now, Chetna Makan authored 5 books and her next is all set for a grand launch in June this year. Her work reflects the emotional bond she shares with Indian food and the fond memories she cherishes while preparing the same, all the while trying to bust the notion that Indian vegetarian cuisines are unhealthy, nutrition-deficient and insipid. Simultaneously, she creates awareness on innovative flavours one can create using the plethora of ingredients.
In an interview with AYUVE, the fashion designer-chef-author shares details about her journey, her innovative cooking methods, about her true inspiration (mother), her emotional attachment with Indian food and a lot more. Read on:
A small town girl from Jabalpur to a fashion designer from NIFT, a creative baker, one of the bestselling authors of cookbooks and a renowned YouTuber, it’s been quite a journey. Tell us about your family and their support in your journey thus far. What inspired you to take up cooking as a line of work?
The support from my family has been amazing. My mum, dad and two sisters are all very proud of what I have achieved and I was lucky that they were able to visit England for the launch of two of my books. I try and visit them in India every year and they keep visiting me whenever possible. We went to India in February 2022 and it was lovely to see them, after two years of Covid-19.
As regards to my husband and kids, they have been really supportive and helped me throughout. Taking up cooking as a career is something that I had not really planned, but it all happened and started when I decided to go on the Great British Baking Off-2014 (GBBO).
You often said that your mom taught you everything about flavours. Are there any mom’s special dishes that you still cherish?
Yes, my mum has been the biggest inspiration in my cooking journey. To be honest I can eat and enjoy anything she cooks. She puts so much love into her food and everything tastes amazing. She can make absolutely any Indian food from dosa and biryani to jalebi. She has this talent that anything she cooks turns out amazing. Every dish that she makes has some lovely memories attached to it, like the basic Tadka Dal. While growing up, I remember her going straight to the kitchen and preparing us Dal Rice immediately after coming back home from our travels. I do exactly the same now.
Could you tell us about your initial days of cooking? Are you teaching your kids, too? Do they help you out in the kitchen?
My mum never really stood and taught me step by step of any dish. She cooked everything by herself and never had any kitchen help. I would always be in and around the kitchen just watching her cook and guess that's how I picked up things. I do try and get my kids involved in the kitchen. They love to bake and can now get on with it themselves. When they were younger I would be there every step of the way trying to make sure they were doing it correctly. They are yet to learn the more detailed cooking.
Why and when did you move to the UK? You turned into a baker after having two kids. Then, you participated and became a semi-finalist in the Great British Bake Off 2014. How was the experience at the show and how did it help you to grow as a baker?
I have always been fond of cooking. I moved to England with my husband for his training. Then, we stayed back and made UK our home. Baking was something I was always interested in, but I really started baking after having kids – it’s then that I was making lot of cakes for my kids and friends.
Going on the GBBO was an amazing experience and yes, it made me grow and evolve as a baker; it also gave me the confidence to then go and write my cookbooks. It taught me a lot about cooking techniques, organising and most importantly, quick baking. It gave me the confidence that the flavour combinations I was doing were good and being loved by the judges. It definitely made me explore the combination of Indian food with Western bakes. I’m still in touch with the contestants. We try and meet once a year around Christmas time. That was one of the best things to come out of GBBO – 11 amazing friends.
What’s your favourite meal of the day? How would you describe the best meal? What is the best part of cooking, for you?
My favourite meal is the one I have when I’m most hungry; so it could be lunch or dinner, but I enjoy the most when I eat with my family. The best part of cooking, for me, is watching my family, friends and others enjoy the food I prepare.
I never cook as per individual tastes. My kids have grown up knowing that there will only be one meal option and that they have to eat what I have cooked for the whole family. We all love Rajma Rice, Chole puri, Aloo Parathas and Dosa Sambar. I try and make a special feast for us every Sunday.
Is there any particular spice that you love to use more in your recipes?
My favourite spice of all time is Cardamom. I love that particular spice has so many different notes and how it works so beautifully in sweet and savoury food.
Tell us about the local cuisines of Jabalpur that you love and miss a lot; please share with us the childhood memories you have with them…
The biggest memory is the Samosa, Jalebi and Poha breakfast in Jabalpur that I have not experienced anywhere else. There is this shop behind my parents’ house that make the best breakfast of all. The shop is still there and I visited it again when I came to India in February.
Her first book ‘The Cardamom Trail’ was a bestseller and now, she is all set to bring out another book on baking (Chetna’s Easy Baking: with a twist of spice) in June this year
Tell us how baking helps satiate your creative soul?
When I went on the GBBO, I wanted to do something different and all I knew well was Indian food; so I decided to come up with recipes that had a touch of Indian food in the bakes. It was great to develop those recipes and that's what was the idea behind my first book. Now with my new book "Chetna’s Easy Baking" I am so happy to go back to baking, as I have such a passion for it.
Tell us about your street food journey in India, which apparently motivated you to write your second book ‘Chai, Chaat and Chutney’…
When I moved to the UK, I realised that people were not aware of the vast variety of Indian street food. So when I got a chance to write my second cookbook, I wanted to share the amazing Indian street food. I travelled to four major cities of India and researched some amazing food and was able to share it in my book.
I had been to Calcutta as a child, but visiting the place to do research for ‘Chai, Chaat and Chutney’ was the most amazing experience. I fell in love with the city, the people and the food. On day 1 of my trip, it started pouring and we went to this food galli somewhere near office buildings. The people kept relishing their lunch by taking cover under umbrellas and plastic sheets, while the rain kept pitter-pattering on the roofs. I had the best Thali and Chai at that place. It was all beautiful and soothing; the experience remains with me forever!
Your book “Chetna’s 30 Minute Indian” came as a pleasant surprise, or should we say a respite, for those looking for some speedy recipes for every occasion.
Yes, I think you are right, because a lot of people find cooking tedious and a job that they don’t enjoy. We all want to eat delicious food but don’t always have the time to prepare it. And that was the idea behind it all – to share recipes that are ready in no time, but taste amazing at the same time.
Tell us about “Chetna’s Healthy Indian” and “Healthy Indian Vegetarian”. In the latter, you wrote about and developed quite a few vegetarian and vegan cuisines yourselves…
This is another thing I’ve found in the UK, where people thought that we Indians eat curry and naan every day for our meals and these are considered unhealthy food options. So, those two books were developed to show people how we really eat at home- a balanced and healthy diet. Not all realise that the food prepared in Indian homes is mostly vegetarian.
Post-Covid, there has been a substantial growth of awareness on health-consciousness and mindful eating. Could you cast some light on it?
The fact that we were all stuck at home and developed some unhealthy eating and drinking habits is making people look for more healthy food and mindful eating. I think it is a good thing and I really hope that it continues; it’s not only good for people, but also for the environment.
All your books have been about Indian cuisine. Is it a conscious decision? It’s true that Indian food is spreading throughout the world and we are witnessing many adaptations of the same, of late. How are your recipes different from these adaptations?
The fact is that I only do recipes that I love. I am not a big meat eater and my husband is vegetarian too. We sometimes eat chicken and fish but 90%of our food is naturally vegetarian and that reflects in the recipes I share in my books and will continue to do so.
My books and recipes are all about how I cook and eat. These are the things which I have grown up with. I get inspired by so much of my mom’s food and always give them a twist by adding more local produces I can find in the UK. Like the Methi Papdi that she makes all the time at home – that is one recipe I used in GBBO; I added a couple of more spices to it and instead of deep frying, I baked it. I tried lot of such experiments in my cookery books, too. My readers simply love such surprises.
What has been the response to your cookbooks from the readers in India? Do you miss being in India and relishing those native, traditional flavours?
Yes, I do miss India and I am very lucky that I can call two places my home – India and UK. And the response to my cookbooks in India has been lovely, too.
Tell us about your readers and subscribers – are they mostly Indian or are there foodies from other parts of the globe, too? Tell us a couple of memorable moments you shared with your followers...
The best part is that my readers and subscribers are from all around the globe. A small number of those are from India, but a majority are people from around the world who are really interested in Indian food and have been finding ways to learn how to cook it themselves at home. The best part is wherever I travel I always find people who stop me and tell me how my books or YouTube channel has helped their cooking and their love for Indian food and that is always very heartwarming.
Would you tell us about your association with the Food52 team? Do you have any plans to collaborate with other authors or chefs or experts for your books, in future? You’re going great with over 215k subscribers for your YouTube channel – Food with Chetna. Tell us about it…
I have been working with food52 for 2-3 years now and they are a lovely team to work with. I admire many authors and the list is too long, every writer has their own touch and specialty and brings his/her own knowledge to the world of food.
I am always looking to collaborate with other authors and chefs and have done a lot of that on my YouTube channel. It is great fun to share my kitchen and what I cook for my family and friends on this platform.
The response has always been heartwarming and special. I do get amazing emails and messages from my followers stating how my channel has helped them cook Indian food, understand it better and have it simplified. That makes it all worth it!
Chetna’s Cookery Books
The Cardamom Trial (April 2016):
The book has been included in the 31 Best Cook Books of 2016 by Washington Post; the 11 Best Cook Books of 2016 by independent.co.uk and in the 10 best Cookbook gift ideas for Christmas by Evening Standard. It showcases rare yet precious traditional bakes from India, besides new spice-infused recipes like Sponge Cake with a Cardamom and Coffee Filling, Puff Pastry Bites filled with Fenugreek Paneer, Swirly Bread Rolled with Citrusy Coriander, Mint and Green Mango Chutney and Steamed Strawberry flavoured with Cinnamon.
Chai, Chaat & Chutney (July 2017):
In this book, Chetna Makan presents the wide variety of street food available in the Indian cities of Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai. She reveals the ingredients, techniques and character of each cuisine (like Tamarind-Stuffed Chillis, Chana Dal Vada with Coconut chutney, Carrot Halwa, Pani Puri and Pistachio Kulfi), while sharing with the readers her travel experiences and photographs. It was chosen one of the Best Books on Food for 2017 by The Guardian.
Chetna’s Healthy Indian (Jan 2019):
The book deals with simple methods, ingredients, flavours, nourishment and comfort in home-cooking. It has 80 realistic recipes that the author creates for midweek, after work, busy weekends or when she simply wants to look after herself with wholesome food: Tandoori Pan-Friend Sea Bream, Paneer & Cavalo Nero Saag, Baked Cardamom & Pistacho Yogurt Pots.
Chetna’s Healthy Indian Vegetarian (June 2020):
The book is a celebration of Indian plant-based food at its best – fresh, vibrant, delicious, varied and nutritious. It offers 80 vegetarian and vegan recipes that even the meat-lovers would enjoy. It is packed with innovative ideas while being easy and accessible for home cooks. The dishes include: Garlic & Tamarind Soup, Cheese & Potato Chapatti Sandwich, Courgette Kofta Curry and Beetroot & Sweet Potato Korma
Chetna’s 30 Minute Indian (June 2021):
This book was created, written and launched during the Covid lockdowns. It has 80 Indian recipes that can be made in 30 minutes or less with minimum ingredients – without compromising on flavours. There are salads, fast snacks, toppings for toasts, dals, veggie, fish and meat curries, all-in-one rice dishes, raitas and desserts for every occasion.
Chetna’s Easy Baking: With A Twist of Spice (June 2022):
The brand-new booking is yet another collection of bakes and includes 80 tempting sweet and savoury recipes that combine Chetna Makan’s creative flavour twists like: Cherry Almond Honey Cake, Onion Masala Focaccia, Orange & Cinnamon Savarin, Saffron Fennel Pound Cake, Peanut Masala Tear and Share Bread and Mango & Lime Meringue Pie.