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In the kitchen with Chetna Makan

“I can eat a whole cake in a single sitting,” says Chetna Makan, the near-permanent smile temporarily gone from her face. Cake is a serious business, and she’s not joking. In fact, since she was voted out of the Great British Bake-Off three years ago, just one step away from making the final, cake is her business. Her appearance on the show prompted Chetna to turn her back on her career as a fashion designer, and with a burgeoning following on her YouTube channel and a second book under her belt, the rest is history.

Anyone who watched Chetna on Bake-Off knows that this is a lady who does indeed love her cakes. Her trick on the show was essentially to fuse Indian spices with quintessential British baking – something that made her nervous when cooking for the national treasure of baking herself, Mary Berry (“I was worried she wouldn’t like all the Indian spices, but she was very complimentary”). The fusion of exotic ingredients with eggs, flour and sugar has seen her carve out a niche in the busy cookery sector.

IN CONVERSATION WITH CHETNA

Tell us about your cooking influences – when did you start?

I’ve always cooked, ever since I can remember. When I was little I’d help my mum in the kitchen, chopping and stirring, trying different things and picking up little tips and tricks. It’s always been there. My mum is a fantastic cook and she’s always cooking.

Even before Bake-Off, you must’ve been getting quite a reputation among your friends as being handy in the kitchen…

Well, I had a reputation for making everybody cakes, but I’d never done a tart or a pie or made choux pastry – it was just cakes. I wasn’t a complete baker at that time, so there was still a lot to learn.

How did going on Bake-Off come about?

I loved making cakes and a friend of mine said “You should try out for The Great British Bake-Off”. I thought “…there’s no harm in giving it a try”. So I applied and amazingly I got through.

You were a fashion designer before – had you always wanted to cook?

Well when I worked in fashion, I never ever thought I wanted to be in the cooking industry – at any point in my life.

What was the experience of being on that show like?

It’s a massive show, and being a part of it was huge for me – for my personal confidence, experimenting with different flavours, and trying to bring Indian food into British baking. I think it was something new to have Indian spices used in something like a cake or some biscuits, and people seemed to respond to it.

Is it as stressful as it looks? Because the audience is huge…

Yes! It’s so stressful! It’s even more stressful than it looks on TV.

Is that because you don’t have enough time to do what you need?

I think they’re very clever, because they know that if a cake has to be made in an hour, they’ll give you half an hour to do it. But when you’re in the tent, you’re not standing there worried that 10 million people are watching – you’re more worried that you’re going to mess up one of your cakes.

So what are Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood really like?

Paul is really nice actually – he’s obviously a strict judge but he’s also very friendly, although you don’t get to see that side of him as much on the show. Mary is lovely. I was worried she wouldn’t like all the Indian spices, but she was very complimentary. The only thing she doesn’t like is when it’s too spicy, so I had to watch that…  

Are Mel and Sue as funny as they appear?

Yes! They wander around quite a lot chatting to you. At first it sort of adds to the stress in a way, because you’re trying to get all this stuff done in not much time. But you soon get used to it. They are incredibly funny.

Tell us about your recent book, Chai, Chaat and Chutney: a Street Food Journey Through India. What inspired that?

It’s about the food in India. I went to Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata, and just spent four days in each with a photographer; including the whole feel and lifestyle of those places was really important to the book.

The food in India is so diverse: in Delhi it’s very heavy and lots of fried stuff, while Kolkata is more about proper meals with multiple dishes – that place is incredible for food. Mumbai is a mix of everything. I tried loads of new dishes I’d never even heard of.

What would be a typical dish that you’d cook midweek?

Midweek it might be a daal, lentils – something really simple.

What would you cook if you had friends coming over on a Saturday?

I love having people over, I completely go to town. A chicken curry, a biryani, some raita, homemade naans – the lot. I’m always entertaining – I love putting a load of home-cooked food out and everyone can just help themselves.

What are your food guilty pleasures?

Cake. I can eat a whole one in a single sitting. I’m not mad on chocolate, ice cream or things like that, but cake is my weakness.

Are there any ingredients you just can’t get on with?

I’m not huge on cheese, and I don’t cook with red meat. All my recipes are either vegetarian or chicken. Here’s a tip for you – only use skin-on and bone-on chicken when cooking a curry. I never use skinless and boneless chicken – bones and skin gives you the real depth of flavour.

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Smoked aubergine sabji


Chetna popped in to see us here at Fisher & Paykel for a chat, and offered to rustle up a few dishes. Naturally, we couldn’t refuse…