Chaya Maya on Tropical Flavours, Spice, and her Mauritian Heritage

By Felicity Carter

1 year ago

We meet the Ottolenghi test kitchen chef

Born and raised in Mauritius, Chaya Maya has a love for all things spice and tropical flavours, cue her very favourite, tamarind. After moving to London as a teenager, she found herself accidentally falling into cookery, and having discovered her love for it, she worked in kitchens across London, now holding the position of development chef at the Ottolenghi test kitchen. Deeply influenced by her Mauritian heritage and the tastes of this subtropical island country, she tells us about her background, charity involvements, and what she’s cooking up in the #OTK.

Chaya Maya on Tropical Flavours, Spice, and her Mauritian Heritage

What’s your first memory of food?

Picking mangoes from the ground as they fell from the trees in our garden in Mauritius. I would eat them without washing as a child, which always drove my mum mad. They were the best mangoes in the world. I still haven’t eaten one quite like it anywhere else. Mangoes taste better in Mauritius. It’s the volcanic soil and sea air that makes it so delicious, I think.

Do you grow your own fruit and vegetables?

My family and I grow a lot of veg and fruit in our garden. Both in Mauritius and in London. In Mauritius, my family have fruit orchards and we have a kitchen garden for regular herbs and fresh veg at the back of the house.  I am a big fan of growing in pots in London, due to the lack of space. I have herbs on the windowsill and a lemon tree wrapped up warm in my living room. I love that summer is here. My garden is so lush with veg, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs. The heat does wonders for it. One vegetable that I haven’t been able to grow successfully in London is aubergines. They need a lot of heat, and the weather doesn’t always behave. I am, however, hopeful. 

Maya Chaya

Any kitchen fails? 

I will tell you about my worst experiment. I think I was about 11 when my mum allowed me to cook unsupervised in the kitchen. I love feeding people, so it was a great joy to be able to pick a mealtime to cook for. During those early teenage years, I picked teatime. In Mauritius, teatime is always around 3pm and you always make a little sweet or savoury snack to tide you over until dinner time. Once, I famously made two vats of green and pink custard to go along matching green and pink crepes. The worst bit wasn’t the colour, it was the lumpy/blobby custard that I had botched. No one ate it (rightly so) but it broke my heart. My family still giggles about it. I do too. I won’t tell you about the time I made four-inch-thick bready pizza as a 13-year-old, with large pieces of soggy pineapple on the top. It took ages to cook! We didn’t eat pizza that night.  

What are you cooking up in the test kitchen at the moment?

The list is very long. It’s too many recipes to list.  There are five of us who create and test recipes at the test kitchen. We are all working on different projects and for different publications.

What is my favourite dessert? 

Is cake dessert? Maybe not. My favourite cake is the ricotta and hazelnut cake in the Ottolenghi cake display. It’s deeply hazelnutty with just the right amount of chocolate. The ricotta gives wonderful texture and keeps it very moist. My favourite dessert has to be the Creme Caramel: slightly bitter caramel and a super silky creme. I could eat a few at a time. Creme brulee is a close second. Although I only like the creme part.


Which are your favourite ingredients to work with and why?

Coming from an island, I have great love for seafood and seaweed. The abundance of sunshine and great volcanic soil means that I grew up eating a lot of fresh local ingredients. When I cook away from home, that is what I find myself naturally looking for in the ingredients I use. Tamarind is one of my favourite ingredients and unfortunately, it’s not local to the UK. I am so grateful that it is so widely available now in most grocery shops.

What else have you coming up this year?

I have a few pop ups in London during this year. They will all be inspired by my Mauritian heritage. I will be cooking for Freedom from Torture’s annual Street Feast event at BAFTA with my ex-Ottolenghi colleague Abhishek Bhide. We both have a great love for spices. It’s our first collaboration and we will be bringing some bold and big flavours to the FFT Street Feast. Here, eight of my colleagues and I will be donating cooking classes and private dining experiences as auction prizes. The auction will be held on the day on the 22 June and for anyone who cannot make it in person, online bidding is now open. 

Catch Chaya at The Great Street Feast charity event to mark Refugee Week on 22nd June at BAFTA Piccadilly.