There are a lot of misconceptions around Indian food: that it’s a “cheat” meal from your local takeaway, or can only be made at home if you spend hours slaving over a hot stove.
These kind of stereotypes make Chetna Makan’s eyes roll.
“People think it will take hours, or sometimes days, where you soak and you ferment – which is all true, but it’s not how we cook every day,” she says with exasperation.
Although it’s seven years since Makan appeared on The Great British Bake Off, she’s still roundly referred to as a “Bake Off favourite” – and now she’s on to her fifth cookbook: Chetna’s 30-Minute Indian: Quick And Easy Everyday Meals.
It’s her latest challenge to preconceived ideas around Indian food; in 2019’s Chetna’s Healthy Indian she turned the idea that “Indian means greasy and unhealthy” on its head, she explains.
There was also another huge driving force behind her latest book: the pandemic. Like so many cooks, Makan noticed a shift in our approach to food over the past year or so.
She says her new cookbook was “written in the first lockdown, completely at home. There was a big surge of trying all these amazing sourdoughs and breads at home, and what I saw with my friends was it started with a bang – and then, after a few weeks, everyone was just like, ‘I don’t want to cook, and I don’t want to spend so much time in the kitchen!’”.
This got Makan thinking more deeply about what kind of food people actually wanted to cook, and she had a light-bulb moment: “Maybe it’s a good idea if I could do something in 30 minutes.”
The idea of whipping a delicious dish up in just 15 minutes makes her belly-laugh, but it would seem like 30 minutes is the sweet spot.
And no, Makan says almost wearily, it’s not just a book of curries. There are some delicious curry meals catering to all different spice levels but it’s got recipes for “everything – a bit of starters, a bit of snacks, some big meals, some small meals, for all seasons”.
This book was a unique experience, she says, because lockdown meant her children (Sia, 13 and Yuv, 11) could actually see firsthand how it all came together. Luckily for Makan, they ended up being a big help. “They would be like, ‘Mum, how many recipes have you done? Mum, have you done 10 or not?’, because they knew my deadlines,” she says with a laugh. For Makan, one of the silver linings of lockdown was the opportunity to get her children to understand what she does for a living. “I was glad because they saw how much hard work goes into writing a book,” she says. “It’s not just like, ‘Oh, I’m writing a cookbook’.”
They also ended up being her best and worst critics. “They definitely have 100% honest opinions,” she says with a playful groan. “You know whether it’s good, whether it’s really good, not that great, or ‘I don’t want to eat it’. They’ve got all these levels of opinions.”
Sia and Yuv must have eaten like royalty during lockdown, as many of the dishes in the book look truly sumptuous – there are generous plates of spicy paneer and crispy spinach koftas swimming in creamy curry sauce. Readers might be surprised these dishes only take half an hour; Makan says her inspiration was “literally the clock”, and she worked backwards from there.
“I was trying to think, ‘OK, what can we make today in 30 minutes? It was what can I do in that time but also keeping a variety: some people might like it spicy, some people like lots of gravy.”
Makan gets excited when talking about her recipes but she’s refreshingly honest: like so many people, she’s become sick of eating every single meal at home. We spoke at the beginning of lockdown restrictions easing in England, and Makan’s latest project was researching bakeries to visit – so she could try someone else’s cakes for a change.
Visiting restaurants is top of her to-do list. “Just to change your scenery and have nice food,” she says longingly. “I’m so looking forward to it. I cook good food, but it just doesn’t taste as good as if someone else is cooking it.”
And for those nights you aren’t at a restaurant, and need something delicious, fast and packed full of flavour? It might be time to try some of Makan’s new recipes.
Chetna Makan’s coconut paneer tikka, serves four
This is one of Chetna Makan’s favourite recipes from her new cookbook.
“The coconut paneer tikka – you cannot stop eating it,” she says excitedly. “It is really, really moreish. It’s easy: in 30 minutes you have that big plate of amazing paneer.”
For the paneer:
- 200ml natural yogurt
- 1tbsp tandoori masala
- ½ tsp salt
- 450g paneer, cut into 2.5cm cubes
- 2 tbsp sunflower oil
For the masala:
- 2 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 tbsp urad dal
- 10 fresh curry leaves
- 2-4 dried red chillies
- 3 onions, thinly sliced
- 60g fresh coconut, grated
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- ½ tsp chilli powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- For the paneer, mix the yogurt, tandoori masala and salt together in a bowl. Add the paneer cubes and gently turn in the marinade until well coated. Set aside while you start to prepare the masala.
- Heat the oil in a pan, add the mustard seeds and urad dal and cook over a low heat for a minute. Then add the curry leaves and chillies and cook for a few seconds.
- Add the onions and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes until lightly golden. Then stir in the coconut and cook for five minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil for the paneer in another pan, add the marinated paneer with all the excess marinade and cook over a high heat for five minutes, turning halfway through, until lovely and golden all over.
- Add the cooked paneer to the onions and coconut with the turmeric, chilli powder and salt. Mix well and cook over a medium heat for five minutes, then serve.
Chetna’s 30-Minute Indian by Chetna Makan, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £20. Available now
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