A culinary pioneer, she breached cultural frontiers and introduced generations of westerners to the delights of curry.
The accolades and awards for her cookbooks and television programmes are many: ‘the herald angel of Indian cookery’, ‘Julia Child of Indian cookery’ and ‘Scheherazade of the kitchen’; several prestigious James Beard Foundation and national and international awards; and a CBE conferred by Queen Elizabeth II for ‘her services to drama and promotion of appreciation for Indian food and culture.’
But Madhur Jaffrey, is at heart still the young girl who grew up in Delhi in a home where there was always plenty of delicious food. Drawing on her taste memory and aided by letters from her mother with recipes for her favourite dishes, Madhur, an accomplished actor, first began to cook for herself in England, and then quite by chance, began a second legendary career as a cookbook author and presenter of popular cookery shows in Britain and America.
As she recounted to Judith Weinraub in an interview, the first recipes she asked her mother to send were for a potato dish, cauliflower dish and one with goat meat cooked with whole spices. Never having cooked before, not even to make a pot of tea or boil rice, her mother’s recipes, albeit written in the traditional andaaz style (in which instinct and experience determine quantities of ingredients) conjured up strong memories of meals cooked in the family kitchen, and she was able to recreate them effortlessly. A naturally discerning palate inherited from her father, together with an attention to detail and striving for perfection inspired by her mother, seem to be the secrets of Madhur Jaffrey’s phenomenal success.
Her desire to get things right has Miss Jaffrey, even today, working on her recipes and books without any assistance. She tries out, writes and types all her recipes herself, which is an amazing feat as she has written over 30 cookbooks and countless recipes, not including all the articles and content for her television shows. Her recipes are always perfect and spot on, so how often does she try them out before she includes them in a book? “It depends. Sometimes I get the results I want the very first time I test a dish. Sometimes I have to test a dish six or seven times. Sometimes it just does not work out at all and I just give up on it”, she says matter-of-factly.
Much about Madhur is matter-of-fact. She wears her celebrity status lightly, preferring to spend time with real cooks in real kitchens, learning the secrets of their traditional dishes and then reproducing them in her own kitchen. Widely travelled, she remembers many special dishes “…in Korea, in Japan, in Malaysia, in Thailand, all over India, in Italy, in France… it is hard to select one. I remember a waffle made from the fresh scrapings of the pith of the sago trunk in Indonesia which was quite delicious. In Malaysia, I had a salad with shredded ginger lilies and bean sprouts that was unforgettable as was a curry mee – a spicy noodle soup. In a Thai village I was offered a red curry made with chicken and fresh bamboo shoots which was scrumptious; and in Venice, I remember a pasta with shavings of fresh truffles.”
Asked what she would cook for a quick meal, she replies, “It could be salmon marinated in a Japanese ginger-soy-sake-sugar marinade and grilled, or Pakistani chappali kebabs with bits of tomato, lightly crushed coriander and cumin seeds, chopped green chillies and chopped onion all mixed in with ground beef.” With all that exposure to exotic foods, what is her family’s favourite dish? “My children and grandchildren love aloo poori. The potatoes are cooked in a Delhi bazaar-style with ginger and tomato, and the poori, for those who do not know, are fried, puffed up breads”. Simply delicious!
Simple pleasure is what Madhur Jaffrey and her cooking are all about. The recipes may have a long list of ingredients and the method might appear too detailed, but perfection and a concern that the reader gets it right and is not disappointed are paramount. Her advice to a curry novice or someone cooking Indian food for the first time: “I always tell people not to try too many new dishes at the same time. Ideally, they should just try one main dish and just get the spices for that as the recipe suggests. This way they are not overwhelmed. With that one dish, they can serve plain rice and perhaps a salad. They should always read the recipe carefully before they do anything.”
It is much the same advice she gave readers of her first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking which was published in 1973 and is still in print today. Described by Craig Claiborne of the New York Times as “one of the finest, most lucid and comprehensive books on Indian cooking ever published”, it was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006. Her other award-winning titles include From Curries to Kebabs/The Ultimate Curry Bible, A Taste of The Far East and Madhur Jaffrey’s Step-By-Step Cookery. Another classic, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery has been in print since 1982 and has sold almost a million copies. Climbing the Mango Trees, a food memoir of her childhood, has received rave reviews, and her latest books, Curry Easy/At Home with Madhur Jaffrey and 100 Essential Curries are best-sellers, as will surely be her much-awaited book and TV show Curry Nation, which celebrates Britain’s favourite curries and her role in making curry a national treasure.
“I am very pleased that (curry) is now eaten regularly by all the British people from nobility to the working man. It has become a part of the weekly diet and it has been Anglicized to suit British tastes.” Miss Jaffrey says modestly, side-stepping acknowledgement of her own role in giving curry the status it enjoys today.
And which dish would she consider to be India’s national dish? “Each state, each community has its own special dishes. But if there is one dish that the whole country might recognize, it would probably be a biryani.”
With her finger on the pulse of Indian cuisine and her profound understanding of India’s varied cuisines, Madhur Jaffrey shares her views on Indian food today: “Fifty years ago, we tended to eat our own local foods. Somehow, we all did know about dosas and idlis but that was it. Today, we travel through our own nation and demand Mangalorean food in Delhi, and Goan food in Bombay. Curry leaves, unknown in the north, are now casually put into scrambled eggs. Western influence has changed from the ‘Continental’ menu in hotels to real Italian and French restaurants. Italian coffee is all the rage. And we have even begun serving fusion ‘modern’ Indian, three dimensional, plated food in very expensive restaurants.”
Pioneering a food revolution and being instrumental in changing the way a whole nation eats, should provide enough reason to rest on one’s laurels and bask in the glow of legendary achievement, but not for Madhur Jaffrey. Before cookery became a large part of her life, Madhur had built a whole other career as an award-winning actor starring in path-breaking Merchant-Ivory film productions like Shakespearewallah and The Householder, and starring with Julie Christie in Heat and Dust. Alongside stirring pots, scribbling recipes in her notebook and explaining the intricacies of making jalebis, she has acted in several prestigious theatre productions in London, and a number of popular TV shows and dramas in the U.S. Asked which of the two passions, cooking or acting, is closest to her heart, she replies simply, ‘Acting, perhaps.”