Chetna Makan’s Simple, Vibrant, Vegetarian Feasts

The Indian-born, UK-based cookbook author reveals the truth about Indian home cooking: it's quick and effortlessly good for you, full of fresh vegetables enlivened with spice
August 12, 2020 Updated: August 14, 2020

In the heat of summer, when mangoes are in season, cookbook author Chetna Makan chops up the raw green fruit to make a refreshing, if unexpected, salad. 

She tosses the tart, crisp flesh with handfuls of red onion, cucumber, carrot, and soaked lentils, which are softened until they retain just a whisper of a crunch. Then she adds the finishing touch that brings it all together: a tadka, or “tempering,” of pungent black mustard seeds and chili flakes warmed in hot oil or ghee, a seasoning technique that sizzles the spices to life, drawing out their oils and full aromas. How’s that for a salad dressing?

Makan was born and raised in the small town of Jabalpur in central India, spent time in Mumbai, and moved to the UK in 2004. She learned this recipe from a woman named Jayashree she met during a trip to Delhi, in search of inspiration for her fourth and latest cookbook, “Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Vegetarian.” 

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Chetna Makan, cookbook author and former “Great British Baking Show” semifinalist. (Photo by Nassima Rothacker)

It was her first time having lentils in a salad—not to mention one that included mangoes—but the unlikely combination ended up being “just a revelation to me,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Is this going to taste good?’ But it was amazing.” For Jayashree, who is from South India, the revelatory salad was a typical summertime staple; it quickly became a new favorite for Makan, too.

You’re likely to find similar revelations in cooking through Makan’s recipes, a repertoire of healthy and vibrant vegetarian Indian dishes, full of fresh vegetables and pulses enlivened with spices and heat. She plays with simple but lively pairings of flavors and textures—like a bright green purée of cooked lentils, spinach, and fresh coconut, spiced with cumin, coriander, and black mustard seeds; or another salad of earthy-sweet shredded beets and carrots, topped with roasted peanuts and a tadka of crisped cumin seeds and green chiles.

“My aim is to help you feel more confident using veg, and become a little more experimental with pulses,” Makan writes. “I wanted to share the wonderful variety of dishes that can be made simply with a few basic veg and grains.”

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“Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Vegetarian: Everyday Veg and Vegan Feasts Effortlessly Good for You” by Chetna Makan (Mitchell Beazley, $29.99).

Everyday Home Cooking

But Makan’s biggest reason for writing this book and its (omnivorous) predecessor, “Chetna’s Healthy Indian,” was to “make people aware of what real Indian food is,” she said—and how easy it is to make at home.

When she moved from India to the UK, she realized that for many non-Indian people in the West, “Indian food is what takeaway is”—limited to naan and rich, long-simmered curries, heavy with oil and cream. “Actually, you know, that’s not how we eat every day,” she said. Such dishes are generally reserved for feasts and celebrations, such as weddings.

On the other hand, everyday food—what Indian cooks make for themselves and their families at home—“is really healthy and full of vegetables and lentils,” usually given “the simplest treatment,” Makan said. “It’s not lots and lots of processes or steps. It’s really quick, healthy meals.” 

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Lentils and other pulses, which come in a huge variety of colors, flavors, and qualities, are a year-round staple on Indian tables. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Take dal, for instance, a huge category of nourishing stews made from simmered lentils or other split pulses—also known as dal—that are a year-round staple on the Indian table. (Vegetables are highly seasonal, but “we cook lentils whether it’s piping hot or freezing cold,” Makan said.)

Some varieties take longer than others to cook, but in the average Indian home kitchen, a pressure cooker makes quick work of the job (and even without one, the process is mostly hands-off). Then the cooked lentils are finished with a tadka, which is ready in a flash on the stovetop and can take the dish in countless directions, depending on what spices and other ingredients you use. 

“It could be very simple, and it could be very complicated; you could add more things or add less things”—chiles, fresh herbs, even onions and tomatoes, Makan said. “Every household obviously has their own favorite one.”

The only rule for the tadka, really, is that there must be one: “I think lentils without tadka is just like toast without butter,” Makan said. “The flavor it adds to lentils is like no other.”

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Tadka is a common Indian seasoning technique that involves warming whole spices in hot oil or ghee, helping them release their full flavor and aroma. (Indian Food Images/Shutterstock)

Finding Inspiration in Simplicity

Makan cites her mother, who loves to cook, as her biggest culinary influence. She remembers always coming home from school with her siblings to find that “the dining table would be all prepared with the whole meal.” There would always be one dal and one dry sabji (a cooked vegetable side dish), served with chapatis and rice, all made from scratch, and “just enough for us to eat for lunch. We would never have the same food for lunch and for dinner.”

For this cookbook, though, she knew she had to look beyond her own family kitchen for some fresh inspiration: “I thought to myself that I really have to go [out], I can’t write it from home. I need to meet some people and get inspired.”

So she put out a call for home cooks on social media, and arranged to visit them in Delhi and cook with them in their homes. She did her best to meet women who had moved to Delhi from all over the country, thus representing a broader range of India’s diverse regional cuisines. 

“I told these people not to cook [before I arrived], as I wanted to watch them cook. That was the whole point,” Makan said. She happily found that from-scratch cooking, rather than reliance on short cuts and ready-made spice pastes or meals, was still the norm for many families. 

“They were working women who were cooking all this amazing food when they would get back from work, and that was so, so inspiring. And they were so kind to let me into their homes and share their knowledge with me,” she said.

Meeting Jayashree, the woman who taught her the mango salad recipe, among others included in the book, was a particularly memorable experience. “She provided nine dishes, one after the other after the other after the other, and within an hour and a half, we sat at the dining table with all that amazing food,” Makan recalled. “Everybody’s food was incredible, but I will not forget [hers] in a hurry at all, because it was just amazing.

“This was the tiniest kitchen I have been in in history—so tiny—and she was using these crushing stones—she didn’t have a pestle and mortar, she was using the stone on her work surface, and that stone had belonged to her grandmother.” 

The experience confirmed for Makan that to cook well, “you really don’t need fancy kitchens,” she said. “You don’t need fancy equipment, and you don’t need a whole spice shop to make good food. You just need to know how to do it right, and you just need a pan and a hob [stovetop].”

 

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