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Chetna Makan's Rice Story

04 April 2023

Chetna Makan’s Rice Story

Chetna Makan known for being a former Great British Bake Off semi-finalist, as well as an author of five Indian cuisine cookbooks. Below she shares with us her love for rice, and the role it has played in her life from childhood to adulthood. This article was originally published on theguardian.com as part of the Tilda and Guardian Labs 'It's the rice that makes it' campaign.

The beauty is how versatile it is’: Bake Off star Chetna Makan’s love letter to rice

Rice is intricately woven into Chetna Makan’s memories of childhood and family life. The cookbook author shares everything she knows about rice.

-By Rosie Mullender

To Chetna Makan, rice isn’t just an everyday staple: it’s an integral part of life. The former Great British Bake Off contestant (Makan appeared in series five of the show, reaching the semi-finals) has written five cookbooks on Indian cuisine – and despite being thrust into the limelight thanks to her fabulous baking skills, rice is at the heart of all her favourite recipes.

“I grew up in Jabalpur, which is a small town in central India,” Makan says. “My mother cooked everything from scratch every single day – a different meal for lunch and dinner. Everything was fresh, and she even made her own garam masala, so I’ve grown up with very homely, beautiful, full-of-love kind of food – and rice played a very important part in that.”

Makan’s memories of childhood are closely tied to food, from the unbroken raw rice offered up during Hindu prayers at Diwali, to the rice dishes her mother used – whether it’s an everyday dinner, a lavish celebratory feast, or simple food designed to soothe upset stomachs.

“When we were unwell, Mum would make us khichdi, which is a mixture of rice and lentils that’s slightly overcooked, so everything becomes mushy,” Makan says. “You just cook some rice with lentils, water, salt and turmeric, and that’s it. It’s very popular in India, and it was so comforting.

“When we didn’t want to eat anything complicated, she would make us a sweet dish called meetha. It’s made exactly like you eat cornflakes, but with rice – you put some cooked rice in a bowl, then sprinkle on sugar and cover it with cold milk. Thinking about it, I can taste it right now. It was just lovely.”

At home, food was always eaten using hands – something Makan encourages her two children, aged 13 and 15, to try at their home in Broadstairs, Kent. “It’s part of the Indian culture to eat by hand,” she says. “I would recommend that everyone try eating rice this way, because it tastes completely different to when you use a fork. It connects you to your food in a different way, and simply tastes more delicious.”

At home, Makan regularly cooks with basmati rice, even though in India it was reserved for feasts and special occasions. “Mum would only use basmati rice for biryanis or pilau, because it was so much more expensive,” she says. “It has this beautiful long grain, and its own flavour and notes. I could eat it with my eyes shut and know it was basmati.”

But despite her love of basmati rice – “especially in biryanis, which I absolutely love” – Makan enjoys experimenting, and cooking with a variety of rices to make everything from puddings that satisfy her naturally sweet tooth, to crispy dosas, the traditional Indian pancakes made from soaked, ground rice.

“The beauty of rice is how versatile it is,” Makan says. “You can have plain rice and serve it with a dal, a curry, beans or chickpeas, and it’s the perfect base to carry all those flavours. Even if you just add ghee and cumin, it tastes amazing. But you can also use different varieties in different ways. Jasmine rice is floral and fragrant, so if you’re making a pudding it works really well, because it adds more to the flavour. It’s the perfect foundation.

Kheer, for example, has a creamy, light and milky base that’s gently flavoured with cardamom, which is my favourite spice. It’s cooked on a low heat for a long time, which makes the milk creamier and the rice fill up and burst. It’s then finished with nuts or dried fruit to add a slight crunch – I usually choose pistachios – and tastes amazing either hot or cold.

“I love brown rice, too – I find its earthy, woody flavour really lovely. I’ll cook up some brown rice, and once it’s at room temperature add some chickpeas, coriander leaves and a little bit of chopped-up cucumber and red onion. If you make a simple dressing – perhaps coriander and mint blitzed with some salt and lemon juice – and stir everything through the rice, it makes a filling, delicious salad.

“I like to use brown rice in soup, as well – when you’re making a creamy roasted butternut squash and red onion soup, or perhaps leek and potato, putting cooked brown rice in your bowl before adding the soup makes a lovely base. It’s got that graininess and the bite to it, which makes soup super filling, and super delicious.”

Whatever Makan is making, the quality of the rice she uses is crucial. “You could make the most amazing food, but if you don’t use good quality rice such as Tilda, all that effort and all those lovely ingredients aren’t going to be able to shine,” she says. “If the quality isn’t good, you’ll get mushy or undercooked rice – cooking techniques matter, but quality matters too.”

For more than 50 years, Tilda has been using only superior grains. Its jasmine packs use the top-tier hom mali grain, sourced from Thailand, while its famed blue basmati packs – which use the term “pure” to describe the contents – are filled with rice grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. In order to be pure, the rice must be grown within the Indo-Gangetic plains, where the climate and soil conditions produce the finest grains – and which are officially recognised as a pure basmati breed within the basmati code of practice. It’s harvested just once a year by Tilda’s team of local farmers and millers, then matured for 18 months before being sorted for consistency. And that same level of care can be found across all its basmati range, including its microwaveable packs.

“Tilda ready-to-heat rice is also a good way of making tasty rice, especially if you’re a student – or, in fact, my kids and husband when I’m away! The sachets are a lifesaver for a lot of people,” Makan says.

As well as cooking the same meals for her family that her mother cooked for her, Makan is passing family traditions down to her own children, particularly when it comes to gathering around the table to eat.

“When I was growing up, we’d pile around the dining table every evening,” she says. “And I remember Sundays, when we’d sitting around chatting, eating dal chawal and rice. Those afternoons with my family watching [the Indian TV series] Ramayan have really stuck with me – they are very fond memories.

“Now, Sunday meals have become important for our family as well. It’s the only time we sit around the table and I go all out with my food. I try to make something special, because I want them to remember these meals how I remember meals with my family as a child. For me, those moments are all about love – love of family, and love of good food.”

Tilda has been the go-to choice for rice aficionados for more than 50 years. The rice you choose can really elevate your plate, so Tilda ensures that only the best quality grains go into its products. For more information, visit tilda.com.

Chetna Makan’s Rice Story

Photography credit:
– By Pal Hansen/The Guardian