Culinary impact goes beyond platters when it signifies cultural confluences. India, with all its vividness and variety, can’t be encompassed within one kitchen. For Madhur Jaffrey, who has been providing ‘food for thought’ for over four decades,the journey never ends.
Madhur Jaffrey, born on August 13, 1933, is an Indian actress, television personality, and food and travel writer. From acting to cooking, and writing — the lay is a jack of all trades and a true entrepreneur. She has had a remarkable and interesting life as she is recognised for bringing Indian cuisine to the western world with her debut cookbook, ‘An Invitation to Indian Cooking’ (1973), which was also inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006.
“My background was absolutely Anglo-Indian. India was still a colony when I was growing up and my convent school was very British,” she reminisces.
Jaffrey, in 1955, moved to London and joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Finding herself far away from home at a young age of 19 — and not being able to find any decent Indian restaurants in London — Jaffrey longed for a good meal. She began to write to her mother, asking for recipes of various childhood favourites like potatoes with cumin, tandoori chicken, dal makhani, and mutton curry. With no previous experience, she slowly began to teach herself the culinary arts.
In 1965, Jaffrey was in ‘Shakespeare Wallah’, for which she won a Silver Bear for Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival. Ismail Merchant, the director of the film, wanted to get more exposure for the film and arranged for Jaffrey to be profiled by New York Times food critic, Craig Claiborn, based on the idea of ‘an actress who can cook’. She is now the food consultant at Dawat, considered by many food critics to be among the best Indian restaurants in New York City
This foray into food writing led to hugely successful books and accompanying TV programmes, made popular by Madhur’s straight-talking approach. Her writing career flourished with many bestsellers, including ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery’ (1982), ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s Far Eastern Cookery’ (1989) and ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India’ (1995).
Jaffrey began taping a cookery series for the BBC in the 80s: ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery’. She had been told that the program was to be an educational one, but she had little idea how far the education she was imparting was going to spread. In each episode, the audience did not just see her cooking in the kitchen but she also gave the viewers a taste of India’s culture, from the sights and sounds to the people that populate the country
She says, “This was the first time that British people were actually cooking proper Indian food in their homes. I remember reading articles like they would run out of cilantro — which is also known as green coriander — in Manchester, because I had made a dish the day before with chicken cooked with cilantro, and they would run out of it. It really changed the way the English were eating Indian food.”
Jaffrey brought out a whole new vegetarian option of Indian cuisine. She felt the need for spreading Indian cookery worldwide through her own experiences. When it comes to vegetarian cooking, few cuisines in the world can match India’s, and when it comes to Indian cooking, few authors can match Jaffrey. “There are so many vegetarian foods in India that I don’t know of. I don’t know India. People call me the great expert on India. Nobody can be an expert on Indian food because it’s such a large country with such a great variety. Every time you go into a little crevice of India, you find a new cuisine, new dishes,” she says.
When people started to complain to her that Indian cooking seems too complicated, she decided to create a cookbook filled with some of the simplest Indian dishes she could find or create. “I cook every day, and I don’t take several hours to cook a meal. Indian food has so many simple dishes,” she remarks.
“Among the eastern countries where vegetarianism thrives, only India has a robust history that covers the different classes and regions of an entire subcontinent, from pauper to billionaire, and from the mountainous Himalayan peaks in the north to the lush tropics of the south,” she says, adding, “Indian vegetarian foods are perhaps the most flavourful and the most varied in the entire world.”
Refraining from the meat-based curries that have gained popularity in the west, she presents the more traditional, healthier, yet no less delicious vegetarian dishes that Indians enjoy every day. Throughout her extensive collection, Jaffrey includes personal anecdotes and historical contexts that bring her recipes to life.
Her aim is to take her readers “on an adventurous ride through India, tasting the real vegetarian dishes that Indians eat in the privacy of their homes, in their local cafes and temples, at the parties they throw for each other, and at their wedding banquets and religious festivals”.
“When I started writing about food, I was told in no uncertain terms that I could write about Asia, I could write about India, but I couldn’t write about Europe. So, if I’d been to Italy 15 times, and a New York Times critic had gone once, she could write about Italy, but I couldn’t. It became a thing of great anger within me. I wanted to do a world vegetarian cookbook, years ago, and I was told, ‘No, you stick to your little cubbyhole and stick to Asia,’ so I did that. Then, when I was able to do what I wanted to do without constantly being told I could not, I wrote ‘World Vegetarian’. But the Indian one (Vegetarian India), because that’s what I knew they expected of me, I never did. It was waiting to be done. Indian vegetarian food, as I say in the book, is the best in the world,” she elucidates on her book, ‘Vegetarian India’, that is believed to be different from all her other books.
Madhur Jaffrey has carved out a piece of history for herself and will be remembered for ages to come as a true ambassador of India to the world.