When Chetna Makan moved to the UK 17 years ago, Indian food in the country was still being perceived as something that was innately entwined with curry houses and greasy takeaways. "All they knew was samosa and naan. But in the last few years, I have observed a change in London, where there is an openness to try regional Indian food, with restaurants attempting to acquaint diners with different cuisines and dishes," she shares.
The writer, YouTuber, recipe developer and cookbook author who has recently penned Chetna's 30-Minute Indian: Quick And Easy Everyday Meals, tells us that her pivot towards food from fashion—which is what she trained in in Mumbai before relocating to London—came rather naturally to her. "I was into cooking from a young age, but baking was very new for me, even though I had tried a little while growing up. Even so, once I moved to the UK, I was exposed to a much wider range of bakes, be it breads or biscuits and that really caught my attention," Makan recalls, outlining what inspired her to start combining Indian flavours with traditional English bakes, which in essence, led to the veritable beginning of her food career in the UK.
In fact, it was her predilection towards baking that ultimately led Makan in the direction of the Great British Bake Off, a popular television show that pits home bakers against each other and where Makan qualified as a semi-finalist. Recalling that period of her life, she says, "I was a big fan of the show and used to watch it regularly. So, when the fourth season was on air, a couple of my friends suggested that I apply for the fifth one, which was to air in 2014. And I thought, 'I am sure I'm not going to get in, so there's no harm in applying.' I didn't think even for a second that I would actually get selected." But as fate would have it, Makan did qualify and the rest as they say is history.
Her stint on the show also steered her towards cookbook writing, where she felt it would make sense to compile the recipes she tried on the show, all in one place. Thus leading to the genesis of her first cookbook, The Cardamom Trail (2016). As it were, Chetna's 30-Minute Indian: Quick And Easy Everyday Meals is the recipe creator's fifth book, and also, a lockdown labour of love. "I think it was during the first lockdown last summer, where people were experimenting with food and they had all the time to make banana breads and sourdoughs. But after a couple months, it felt like everyone had had enough and they just wanted to enjoy delicious food without having to spend hours in the kitchen. So, that's where the idea for 30-minute Indian came about."
That could explain why you will find Makan's Instagram lately teeming with sundry images of quick and easy recipes, that all sound doable, but also nuanced. Be it the intelligently spiced masala chicken, an aubergine and fennel curry draped in earthy tones or a coconut paneer tikka that combines flavours so far and wide that it makes you sit up and take notice.
The book is also, in part, a reflection of Makan's evolution as a chef and cookbook author, from a migrant finding her feet in the F&B space in the West to a gentle-but-formidable force responsible for putting Indian cuisine on the global map. Makan is also credited for quietly debunking several myths around Indian food, be it with her second book Chai, Chaat and Chutney that tried to acquaint Londoners with our country's diverse repertoire of street food. Or, her third book, Chetna's Healthy Indian, which attempted to absolve Indian food from the allegation of being oily and exaggerated. This, in part, also extends into her new book that celebrates the natural simplicity of our food through practicable recipes. "I tried from day one, to keep things very simple, clear and create recipes that actually work. Now, I find myself working harder to ensure that," she asserts.
Which, to be fair, is something we owe Makan—and her contemporaries—gratitude for, because how long can we sit around and watch people call haldi doodh 'turmeric latte,' without saying anything at all, really?
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.