Life

Chetna Makan: Skip take-out and make curries that are good for you at home

I love cake but love cake my everyday food is really, really good for me, and that kind of balances it out – otherwise, it would be disastrous

India-born Chetna Makan is a former Great British Bake Off contestant

CHETNA Makan gets to the point. And that goes for her recipes – which are brilliantly brief and require very few ingredients – as well as her conversation; there's no faffing.

So with her new cookbook, Chetna's Healthy Indian, the former Great British Bake Off contestant is immediately insistent that this is absolutely not a health book, and definitely not a diet book. Not at all.

"I am no expert," says Makan (40) over glasses of chai and bowls of crackly, spiced okra fries. "I don't have the right knowledge for a health book."

Rather, this recipe collection, her third, is a considered, flavour-fuelled response to a question she finds herself asked repeatedly: 'If you bake so much, why are you not the size of a house?'

Makan is frank about having never dieted ("I just can't deal with it"), and even when she was training to run the London Marathon last year, rather than tumbling into a pasta-only vortex of carb-loading, she "just carried on as normal" and continued to eat her usual quota of homemade cake. And yes, she did complete the 26.2-mile route: "I'm still here!"

Chetna's Healthy Indian explores the "carried on as normal" part of her eating habits, and while she really does "love cake", the India-born cook says with a laugh: "My everyday food is really, really good for me, and that kind of balances it out – otherwise, it would be disastrous."

Dinner at Makan's house features the likes of chana dal with roasted aubergine, black eyed beans with cavolo nero, tamarind fish curries, spicy chicken and chickpea curry bakes, fried rice loaded with green veggies, and zingy chutneys and pickles. They're dishes that also neatly and tastily debunk the idea that the word 'curry' only accounts for what you order in on the weekend.

"That is a big problem," says Makan of the perception held by some, that Indian is purely take-out food – and, as a result, delicious but probably bad for you. "People think, 'Oh, let's treat ourselves, have a curry on a Friday night', which is absolutely ridiculous."

"That's not how it should be," she adds, noting that when you're making one from scratch, rather than relying on a delivery, curry can work any night of the week. And if you're still itching to place an order come the weekend, look in the fridge instead. "It is the best part, having little Tupperwares of leftovers from the whole week," buzzes Makan. "On Saturday, take everything out – it works perfectly."

Chetna's Healthy Indian then offers short, snappy meal ideas that rely on fresh produce ("You can find okra anywhere now") and easily got spices.

Pats of butter, puddles of cream, slicks of oil and lengthy ingredient lists just aren't her style. "I am in the kitchen with all the ingredients, but there are people who aren't," she explains. "I try and keep it to the minimum and don't over-complicate."

And there's no need to huff at the idea of stocking up on brand new, obscure spices – you're highly likely to have Makan's staples tucked away somewhere in the cupboard, no matter their age.

"I've got spices that are really old," she admits. "I bought a massive, massive bag of really good cinnamon – I don't know what I was thinking – and cardamom, I use a lot of cardamom, from a Delhi spice market three or four years ago, and they're half gone, but they're all right. Still strong and powerful."

Not only is Makan's food light on faff and effort, her recipes are also largely accessible for the whole family, kids included. And while it isn't a cookbook aimed directly at vegans and vegetarians, by dint of it exploring Indian cuisine (and putting a twist on traditional dishes), many of the recipes just happen to be entirely plant-based.

"If there's no meat or fish in it, it's usually vegan, because there's no dairy [in a lot of Indian cooking], or you can take it out," notes Makan.

She has considered going vegetarian herself – although is slightly held back by her "weakness for chilli chicken" – but says she'd struggle to switch wholly to veganism.

She is a baker, after all: "Eggs would be the biggest loss, I can't do without eggs!"

:: Chetna's Healthy Indian by Chetna Makan, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Mitchell Beazley priced £20 (octopusbooks.co.uk). Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.

COCONUT CHICKEN CURRY

(Serves 4)

1 1/2tbsp sunflower oil

1tsp mustard seeds

10 curry leaves

2 onions, thinly sliced

2 green chillies, thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1cm (1/2-inch) piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1tsp salt

1tsp ground turmeric

1tsp ground coriander

1/2tsp ground cinnamon

8 skinless chicken pieces on the bone (I use 4 thighs and 4 drumsticks)

400ml can coconut milk

Method:

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in the mustard seeds and cook for one to two minutes, until they start to sizzle. Now mix in the curry leaves and, after one minute, add the onions and green chillies.

Reduce the heat to low and cook for five to six minutes, until the onions have softened. Stir in the garlic and ginger and cook for another two minutes. Add the salt and spices to the saucepan and mix well. Cook for one minute, then stir in the chicken, increase the heat to high and cook for five minutes, until the chicken is sealed.

Stir in the coconut milk, then cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low and cook for 35-40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Serve immediately.

BARLEY WITH VEGETABLES AND PEANUTS

(Serves 4)

200g pearl barley

1L water

1tbsp sunflower oil

1tsp cumin seeds

1 onion, finely chopped

100g toasted peanuts, lightly crushed using a pestle and mortar

5 spring onions, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 red pepper, cored, deseeded and finely chopped

1 green pepper, cored, deseeded and finely chopped

1tsp salt

1/2tsp chilli powder

1/2tsp ground cumin

1/2tsp garam masala

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Juice of 1 lime

Method:

Put the barley into a saucepan with the measured water and bring to the boil - this could take up to 10 minutes. Once it's boiling, reduce the heat to low, partly cover the pan with a lid and simmer for 50 minutes or until the barley is tender. Drain the barley and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook for one to two minutes, until they start to sizzle. Stir in the onion, increase the heat to medium and cook for two minutes, until it begins to soften.

Add the lightly crushed peanuts to the saucepan with the spring onions, carrot and peppers. Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are slightly cooked but retain crispness and bite.

Now add the salt, spices, pepper and cooked barley to the saucepan and mix well. Increase the heat to high and cook for one minute, then mix in the lime juice. Serve immediately.

SPICY STUFFED OKRA

(Serves 4)

500g okra

1tbsp sunflower oil

1tsp cumin seeds

1tsp fennel seeds

1 large onion, thinly sliced

For the stuffing:

50g gram (chickpea) flour

1tbsp sunflower oil

1tsp salt

1tsp mango powder (amchur)

1tsp ground cumin

1tsp ground turmeric

1/2tsp chilli powder

Method:

First, make the stuffing. In a dry frying pan, toast the gram flour over low heat for three to four minutes, until it starts to smoke and becomes aromatic. Add the oil and cook for another four to five minutes or until the flour begins to change colour.

Tip the gram flour mixture into a bowl, add the salt and spices and mix well. Set aside. To prepare the okra pods, cut off the tops and slit them open lengthways. Fill each pod with half a teaspoon of the stuffing mixture.

Heat the oil in a wide frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the cumin and fennel seeds and cook for one to two minutes, until they begin to sizzle. Stir in the stuffed okra and sliced onion, increase the heat to medium and cook for two minutes, then cover the pan with a lid and cook for a further 20 minutes, until the okra is tender. Serve immediately.

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