Meet the lady who is accidentally responsible for popularising Indian food in the West
You’d expect most people to be tired, even irritable, if they had to rush to an event within hours of arriving on a New York-New Delhi flight made more tedious by a 24-hour delay. But there was Madhur Jaffrey, actress and diva of Indian cooking, now 84, showing no trace of jet lag or fatigue. When I met her on a winter evening at the DLF Golf and Country Club in Gurugram, she was elegant and sprightly, wearing a stylishly-oversized jacket, leather pants and ethnic earrings, a look she laughingly describes as part Jackie O, part Beyoncé.
Jaffrey was in the capital to participate in the Tasting India Symposium, a platform whose key theme this year was making India a culinary global superpower. There has been no better ambassador for Indian cuisine than Jaffrey, who is also on the board of directors of Tasting India. But while it has become fashionable to speak of ‘modern Indian’ and ‘plating Indian food for the world’, Jaffrey believes the focus should be on authentic Indian food and its immense diversity.
“Modern Indian, as it is understood, is an experiment, it’s not real food,” she says. Jaffrey believes food evolves organically, and if it is to change it has to be in the natural course of things, not because we wish to woo the Western diner with it.
She is also of the view that Indian food is yet to find widespread acceptance and appreciation abroad, especially in the US. “Yes, tamarind will be trendy one year and chefs will be turning to cumin during another. But that can hardly be construed as Indian food acquiring a global reach,” she says. Still, it is a fact that Madhur Jaffrey has made the world, especially the UK, realise that balti cuisine is not Indian food. She’s done this through television shows celebrating authentic Indian dishes, with her writing on Indian food, and her recipe books that give cooking enthusiasts insights into the richness and diversity of regional Indian fare.
Her own love of Indian food emerges from her childhood, growing up in a joint Kayasth family in Old Delhi, and she remembers the meal experiences in great detail. “There was this hauntingly delicious mushroom dish that was made when they were in season. The men of the household always ate first and often only the shorva remained for us, and even that was delicious,” she says. Her fondness for vegetarian fare also comes from family tradition; the women rarely ate meat, preferring seasonal vegetables they cooked in simple, yet wonderful ways.
When Jaffrey went to London to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she found herself pining for a taste of home. “Indian food was off the charts and what was in the Indian restaurants was awful,” she recalls. She wrote to her mother asking for recipes so she could cook herself. Her mother sent her via airmail letters – this was the early 1950s – three-line recipes for hing jeere ka aloo, gobhi aloo and khade masale ka gosht. Jaffrey began to cook and she took her cooking to New York where she moved to further her career as an actress.
As she lived the artist life, cooking Indian food for friends, she was introduced to New York Times writer Craig Claiborne by Ismail Merchant. He wrote a piece about the actress who liked to cook. Then, Jaffrey was approached by a freelance editor, asking her if she wished to write an Indian cookery book. Eventually, the project landed in the hands of Judith Jones of Knopf who, incidentally, was also Julia Child’s editor. It was Jones who titled the book An Invitation to Indian Cooking and it is still a cherished tome among all Indian cookbooks.
“I was hijacked into the world of food and food writing,” Jaffrey says, “And I had no idea what I had signed up for.” She agrees that she has the advantage of a ‘palate’, the same way her musician husband Sanford Allen has an ‘ear’. “The palate helps me remember a flavour profile to the smallest detail and recreate it exactly,” she says.
She’s had no formal training as a chef and sometimes wishes she had some professional knife skills. “I cut and chop like a housewife,” she laughs. While she cooks with instinctive flair, when it comes to writing her recipes, it’s all about precision and diligence. “I measure the sizes to which the vegetables must be cut, weigh out ingredients and time the cooking, doing it all myself. I’m a one-woman band and when someone reads and cooks from my recipe, it’s between me and them alone,” she says. Jaffrey has never thought of keeping back an essential tip or ingredient, something accomplished cooks and chefs tend to do. “I’m completely against that. Be generous and pass on the knowledge,” she says.
Stove & stage
Having written over a dozen cookbooks, beginning with Indian cuisine and branching out to Far Eastern cookery and world vegetarian, Jaffrey is currently researching for a cookbook that will bring out health-giving recipes from the Indian kitchen.
Besides her books, her much-loved TV shows have won her a global following. She remembers that when BBC presented Indian food with Jaffrey in 1982 there were various guidelines. “I was told no hing, please,” she says. “I followed the instruction for the first time and then realised, I have to start teaching people about our food and its wonderful ingredients. I want people to know about poha, for instance, how each region in India treats and eats this nourishing food.”
She has surely done more than anyone to make Indian cuisine accessible to the rest of the world and indeed to Indians, and is known, therefore, as the Queen of Indian Cooking. She herself says no one can truly say they have mastered Indian cuisine. “When I travel in India, I’m discovering new ingredients and dishes all the time. Recently, I was introduced to plump mushrooms that grow in Coorg. They are grilled and served with salt and lime and pair a treat with whiskey,” says Jaffrey.
Her travels across the UK, too, throw up interesting – or abominable – renditions of Indian food. While shooting for Curry Nation, she went to Scotland where she found haggis pakora – ghastly, in her words – and went looking for the popular combination of chips with curry sauce. Back in the kitchen she found the ‘Indian’ curry sauce came out of a giant can made in China. All of which makes Jaffrey even more determined to promote and preserve Indian food in its authentic form. “Why deconstruct a masala dosa?” she asks. “It’s already perfect.”
While it may seem that Jaffrey spends all her time in the realm of food, she is still very much an actress, even now auditioning for roles. Her love for the arts comes through when she speaks about the early years of her acting career, particularly her association with Ismail Merchant with whom she made Shakespeare Wallah, the film that won her a Best Actress Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965. Shashi Kapoor was her co-star and it was also Merchant who asked her whom she wanted to act with in Autobiography of a Princess and a then young and, possibly, insouciant Jaffrey said ‘Olivier’. Eventually, the role went to James Mason and she recalls how he would rehearse his props and sit and watch while she, a newbie compared to him, delivered her lines.
At the end of a long, chilly evening, Jaffrey was still in great form, posing for photos, complimenting the Golf Club’s chefs on the very nice dahi ki pakodi they had served. How did she do that? “I’ve never been high on physical strength,” she says. “It’s all in the mind, it’s mental energy.”
Author bio: The author is a Bengaluru-based senior writer who specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing. She has edited several major mainstream publications in the past.
From HT Brunch, February 4, 2018
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