Photo (clockwise from top left): Mango & Mint Salad,
Spicy Chicken & Chickpea Curry Bake, Marsala Black Chickpeas
Chetna Makan is a trained fashion designer, who was born in Jabalpur, India and made her reality television debut not on Project Runway, but as a contestant on The Great British Bake Off, where she baked her way right into the semifinals and charmed the world with her enthusiastic approach to Indian baking and cooking. Since then, Chetna started a her Food with Chetna YouTube cooking channel and has written three cookbooks. Her newest is called Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Everyday Meals Effortlessly Good For You. In the book, and in this interview with contributor Melissa Clark, Chetna makes the point that most Indian food is healthy by nature and there's an neverending variety of what you can do with ingredients like lentils, vegetables, chilies and spices. She shared with us her recipes for Mango & Mint Salad, Black Lentils with Red Kidney Beans, Masala Black Chickpeas, and Spicy Chicken & Chickpeas Curry Bake.
Melissa Clark: Why healthy Indian food specifically?
Chetna Makan: The biggest reason is that it’s not something I invented or I created; this is how Indian food is generally. At home, when cooking for your family, we eat really healthy foods. I think it’s about making people aware of what Indian food actually is like in Indian kitchens.
MC: ls there a perception that it is somehow unhealthy?
CM: Yes. In the West and the U.S., where I think people associate Indian food with takeaways, that’s it’s all greasy and butter and naan and lots of ghee and stuff, fried foods like samosas. Whereas all of that is true, that’s not how we eat at home.
MC: Right. So, you didn’t actually take Indian food and make it healthier; all you did was present Indian food as you always cook it.
CM: Absolutely right. This is the food I grew up with and this is the food that I make for my family.
Photo: Nassima Rothacker
MC: You write about your mom cooking and how she would cook every single day. Tell us about that.
CM: She was a stay-at-home mom looking after us, and she would make us our meals. We would come back from school and the lunch was ready on the table and then in the evening she would make fresh food, which means she didn’t really spend all of her time in the kitchen. That’s another thing that this book tries to clarify: you don’t have to spend hours or days preparing Indian food; it is really quick. She made everything from scratch and really healthy, and that’s how she still cooks.
MC: I love the part where you write about how the vegetable vendor would come down your street and she’s buy different vegetables, and if the vendor didn’t come for some reason one day she would have a panic attack.
CM: You know it still happens. She visited me a couple of week ago and she said this new vegetable vendor started coming, so it’s very much still happening.
MC: Because vegetables are a very big focus in Indian cuisine, not just in your book but in the cuisine in general. There are a lot of vegetarians in the country.
CM: Yes. Obviously, as you know a large part of India is vegetarian. My dad is a vegetarian. So, there is a big focus on seasonal because you cannot find strawberries throughout the year, it doesn’t work like that. You get only seasonal produce. Cauliflower comes in the winter. Green peas come in the winter. So, it is seasonal produce that you eat mostly. The focus is very much on vegetables.
MC: What about salads? You have a whole chapter on salads. Is that traditional in India or is that something that you personally do in England?
CM: No, salads are not traditional in India. We have kachumber, which is a combination of cucumbers and vegetables; it’s very fresh and light to go with the heavy food if you’re eating a proper feast. But no, it’s not traditional. I love a good salad, and with it being in the UK such a short-lived summer, you need something light and refreshing. But at the same time, I can’t just eat leaves, I need some more substance like peas or chicken or tomatoes or chickpeas, some solid base to it – and of course, spices.
MC: Is there one Indian dish that you think everyone should be cooking that we’re not already? Either from your book or from the canon, what’s the Indian dish we’re not cooking but should be?
CM: We have got a massive range of lentils available to us. What I don’t particularly like is when everything is categorized as ‘yellow lentils.’ [laughs] Because I know most lentils are yellow, but they taste so different. They might look the same, but I think people need to try different kinds of lentils and see for themselves how amazingly delicious they are.
MC: That was one of the questions I was going to ask because I noticed there are so many different kinds of lentils in your book. Some of them I had heard of but not tasted, and some of them I hadn’t even heard of. When you say ‘yellow lentil,’ I think of what we here call ‘red lentil’; it’s sort of an orange color. Can you walk us through some of the different kinds of lentils that you love that we might be able to find?
CM: Some other lentils are toor lentil, which is the base that we traditionally use for toor dal. And that tastes different from the orange lentil that you just mentioned, that when cooked turns yellow. This is toor dal, and it has started to become available in the UK. It is very different with some tadka dal, which is tempering and worth trying. Then there is chana dal, the slightly heavier lentils which take a little bit longer. It does taste delicious with flatbreads. When it is cooked it becomes very creamy. There is also moong dal, which is a different kind of yellow lentil. It’s really light and super healthy. The version that you can find is the moong dal with the skin on, which is green.
MC: I have seen those, yes.
CM: It tastes different. The green dal, when cooked, is very different to the moong dal without the skin when it’s cooked. The variety just keeps going on and on.
MC: And so you can substitute one lentil for another if you can’t find a particular kind –
MC: But it’s better to try them all.
MC: You just mentioned the tadka. Tell me about that. It’s tempered spices and oil?
CM: Yes. Usually you would do that with ghee, but at the same time that tadka becomes very different in the north than when you’re in the south. The spices you use in your tadka will differ if you are in a southern kitchen than in a northern kitchen. But, in this book I’ve tried to not divide things into North and South Indian. Or West or East. It’s all Indian.
Chetna's Healthy Indian by Chetna Makan
MC: How does it come together?
CM: The tadka comes together by heating the ghee, which is the base. You usually don’t do it in oil because it doesn’t taste that great.
MC: Can you use butter? Or does it have to be clarified butter?
CM: You could use butter, you could use sunflower oil, you could use coconut oil, you could use ghee. And then you add the seed of your choice, whether it’s black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, or a little bit of fennel or fenugreek thrown in. Commonly in my kitchen it’s cumin. As it gets to be golden-brown, you’ll smell it. That’s when you throw in green chilies if you want, some garlic if you want, or some onions. You can add curry leaves if you can find them fresh. Or you can add a bit of tomatoes, then cook it and add it to your dish.
MC: It’s like this separately made spice and oil – or spice and ghee – mixture that flavors the whole pot.
CM: And it can be very simple. I could be just ghee, cumin and coriander leaves. Or more elaborate.
MC: I love the different kinds of dal; there is just an endless variety.
CM: Indeed. I can tell you that not having used all of the varieties yet. [both laugh] Indian food can be light and healthy, and you can make it really quick. You don’t have to wait for the weekend.
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Melissa Clark is a food writer and author. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. She is the author of Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite and 32 other cookbooks.