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Only got 30 minutes for dinner? That’s plenty of time to whip up an Indian feast, says Chetna Makan

The Great British Bake Off alum tells Prudence Wade about her latest book demystifying Indian cooking – and it’s all about saving some time in the kitchen

Monday 21 June 2021 10:37
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<p>‘The coconut paneer tikka – you cannot stop eating it,’ says Makan</p>

‘The coconut paneer tikka – you cannot stop eating it,’ says Makan

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 onto 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 [in 2020], 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!'”

Bake Off ‘favourite’ Makan is dedicated to demystifying Indian cooking

This got Makan thinking more deeply about what kind of food people actually want to cook, and she had a lightbulb moment: “Maybe it’s a good idea if I could do something in 30 minutes,” she mused. 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 first-hand how it all came together. Luckily for Makan, her kids 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 actually get her children to understand what she does for a living. “I was glad because they actually 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 per cent honest opinions,” she says with a playful groan. “You know whether it’s good, whether it’s really good, not that great, or ‘I really don’t want to eat it’. They’ve got all these levels of opinions.”

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

Sia and Yuv must have eaten like royalty during lockdown, as many of the dishes in the book look truly sumptuous – there’s 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.

Spinach kofta with creamy almond-onion curry recipe

A true crowd-pleaser

This kofta recipe is a true crowd-pleaser in Makan’s household. “It’s really flavourful, but quite light,” she explains – making it one of her children’s favourites from her new cookbook.

For Makan, the best way to serve it is with a bit of everything: “It’s lovely with rice and naan.”

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 tbsp sunflower oil

250ml water

100ml natural yogurt

¾ tsp salt

1 tsp chilli powder

1 tsp sugar

Red chilli flakes, to garnish

For the paste:

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 green chilli, roughly chopped

40g white poppy seeds

40g blanched almonds

2.5cm fresh root ginger, peeled and roughly choppe

2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

100ml water

For the koftas:

1 potato, peeled and cut into 1cm pieces

100g spinach leaves, finely chopped

½ tsp salt

60g cornflour

Sunflower oil, for shallow-frying

Method:

1. Blitz all the paste ingredients in a blender (preferably) or a food processor until smooth. Heat the oil in a pan and add the paste with 50ml of the measured water. Cover and cook over a low to medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring halfway through.

2. Meanwhile, make the koftas. Put the potato pieces in a pan, cover with water and bring to the boil, then cook for five minutes until cooked through. Drain the potato, put it into a bowl and mash with a potato masher. Add the spinach, salt and cornflour and mix well. Divide the mixture into 10-12 portions and form each into a ball about the size of a lime, then flatten them slightly.

3. Heat enough oil for shallow-frying in a frying pan. Line a plate with kitchen paper. Add the koftas to the hot oil and cook over a medium to high heat for one to two minutes until golden and crispy. Transfer to the paper-lined plate to absorb the excess oil.

4. Whisk the yogurt with the remaining 200ml water in a small bowl. Gradually add to the paste and cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, for a minute. Then stir in the salt, chilli powder and sugar and cook for two minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, place the koftas on top and serve, garnished with red chilli flakes.

Coconut paneer tikka recipe

A moreish dish in just 30 minutes

This is one of 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.”

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the paneer:

200ml natural yogurt

1 tbsp 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

Method

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

Gram flour sweets recipe

For when your sweet tooth needs satisfying ASAP

Sometimes your sweet tooth needs to be satisfied ASAP – and if you want to eat something homemade, you’re hardly going to wait for an entire cake to bake.

That’s where Makan’s recipe for gram flour sweets comes in: sugary, buttery, spiced with cardamom and spiked with almonds, it will satisfy all your cravings – and be ready to eat within half an hour.

Makes: 8-10 servings

Ingredients

100g ghee, plus extra for greasing

170g gram flour (besan/chickpea flour)

60g icing sugar

20g ground almonds

¼ tsp ground cardamom

10g toasted flaked almonds

Method

1. Heat the ghee in a pan. Once it has melted, add the gram flour and cook over a low heat for eight minutes, stirring often, until it starts to change colour and smell toasted. The mixture will start off clumpy but will gradually bubble and become smooth and creamy.

2. Take the pan off the heat and let the mixture cool for five minutes.

3. Meanwhile, grease a 20cm square cake tin and line with non-stick baking paper.

4. Mix the icing sugar, ground almonds and cardamom together in a bowl, then add the toasted gram flour mixture and stir to combine.

5. Transfer the mixture to the lined tin, then spread it out and level the surface with a spatula. Sprinkle the toasted flaked almonds on top and let it cool in the refrigerator for five to 10 minutes until firm.

6. Cut it into small squares and serve. These sweets will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Let them sit at room temperature for an hour before serving.

Recipes extracted from ‘Chetna’s 30 Minute Indian’ by Chetna Makan (Mitchell Beazley, £20; photography by Nassima Rothacker), available now.

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