FROM A BEDECKED STAR with kohl-lined eyes, a silver tikka in her hair, bangles on her wrist, watching a play, with Shashi Kapoor by her side, to a woman with a cropped haircut and in a cotton saree describing the steps to make a garam masala, to a yellow-beret-wearing, crimson-lipstick-totting, cuss-spewing ‘Nani’— Madhur Jaffrey has clearly donned more roles than most. She’s been the lead to Kapoor in the dew drenched Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), where she played a Bollywood star and won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. She helmed the 1982 TV series, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, which brought Indian food to the world. And in 2019, she starred in Mr Cardamom’s no-holds-barred rap song ‘Nani’. She is also the author of the beloved children’s book Seasons of Splendour: Tales, Myths and Legends of India (1985). Having turned 90 this August, Jaffrey, who believes in “the art of the possible,” continues to wear her accomplishments as she does her eyeliner; with lightness and verve.
In a brand saturated world, Madhur Jaffrey is an entity unto herself. And it is little surprise that her books continue to be reissued. Her latest book is the 40th anniversary edition of Indian Cookery (Bloomsbury; 239 pages; `899). In many ways it reminds one of the many ways in which Indian food and tradition have stayed the same and the few ways in which it has changed. “Most Indians like to eat with their hands. It is only the right hand that is used,” reads like an outdated sentence, but the many descriptions of the techniques of Indian cooking—from the grinding and roasting of spices to the marinating and browning of meats—will forever be relevant.
This is a book aimed at a western readership, those who need to be warned to not touch their eyes after cutting green chillies, but it also has something for everyone. For example, one might learn that the best way to store green chillies is unwashed and wrapped in a plastic container in the fridge. Or that if the flesh of a coconut adheres too strongly to the shell, the coconut halves can be charred slightly on a low flame. This will help contract the shell and release the kernel. While today’s snobby Indian cook might not want to be told what ghee or a tadka are, Jaffrey’s book, which might even be called Indian Cooking for the Ignoramus might be hugely comforting to the novice. This book follows the mantra; if you can read, you can cook. Its pernickety detailing is like a Lego manual. By handholding one through each step, the book assumes no prior knowledge and has a simple but humanitarian goal; everyone can cook, and anyone can cook well.
“I wanted the West to see that we are all kinds of people. And I wanted to show them what Indian food is, which is marvellous. It’s not curry, curry, curry. It’s something else that comes out from homes, and every home is different. I just wanted to give them a taste of that,” says Madhur Jaffrey
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To prove this point, I recently followed her lamb with spinach recipe or ‘Dilli ka saag gosht’. I’ve had this only at Karim’s in the vicinity of Jama Masjid in Delhi. It is a dish, which takes me back to rickshaws and the muezzin’s call, to foggy Delhi afternoons and sweaters smelling of mothballs. I’ve no exceptional skills as a cook, but from my kitchen emerged a dark green mutton dish that was redolent of snaking gullies, towering domes and mouthfuls of joy. Food and taste might serve the purpose of sustenance, but they do so much more. And for over 40 years of writing about food, and cooking food, Jaffrey has shown that food is about identity and community.
She, like so many others, started cooking as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA in London) who was tired of eating mutton and cabbage and potatoes that were all a dismal shade of grey. Cooking Indian dishes was her ticket home, without having to travel.
When we speak, Jaffrey is in her country home, Hillsdale, two and a half hours out of New York. When she appears on screen, punctual to the minute, she is immaculately dressed, with her dark eye liner, pink lipstick, and a perfect coiffure with not a grey on display. She could so easily pass off as Nefertiti, I think to myself. If Tarla Dalal is the homemaker of Indian cooking, then Jaffrey is the heroine. It is little surprise when she confesses that she loves clothes, good clothes, and dressing up. This is her home where she enjoys the joys of gardening. With autumn descending, she is now extracting the last from the earth, such as kohlrabi, chard, and Brussels sprouts, before the soil slumbers.
INDIAN COOKERY INCLUDES 11 new recipes that were not in the original. Looking back, she is surprised that she left out basic moong dal. She has included dishes like khili hui khichri, which her little granddaughter loved. She says, “I thought I should put versions of khichri and dal, which are made for babies. Because families are cooking for themselves, but they’re also cooking for their children.” She has also included more goat dishes, as our gosht is not lamb generally, it is goat.
In the foreword to the 40th anniversary edition, Jaffrey writes, “The book changed the way the British ate and what they ate. It altered forever the way the British thought of Indian food, indeed, of Indians themselves.” This is a tall but not a dubious claim, as it is often reported that Manchester ran out of cilantro a day after Jaffrey made a chicken dish with green coriander on national television. While this makes for a good anecdote, Jaffrey is responsible for more than the disappearance of cilantro. She made the Western audience see Indians for who we are. Speaking of how white people generally viewed Black people, or how Westerners saw Indians, she says, “They were seen as not important. They have their own odd lives, but their lives did not connect with theirs in any way. And in that sense, Indians were either judged or ignored.” She wanted to change that; she wanted the West to see Indians not as a race but as a people. She explains, “See us as we are. We can dress well. We can talk well. We can be sophisticated. We needn’t be sophisticated. We’re just like you. We are all kinds of people. And I wanted to show them what Indian food is, which is marvellous. It’s not curry, curry, curry. It’s something else that comes out from homes, and every home is different. I just wanted to give them a taste of that.”
“I always go to homes with a begging bowl. I like to go there for breakfast, for lunch, for tea, for dinner. I ask them, ‘Tell me, how do you do this? What do you love? Why do you love it?’ And I don’t ask them for a recipe because people don’t know how to give recipes. I’ll just watch them make it,” says Madhur Jaffrey
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To watch some of Jaffrey’s cooking videos today is a lesson both in history and anthropology. She stands in her sarees, the colour of haldi and kumkum, in a uniformly brown and beige kitchen. Her only adornment at most times is a single long gold chain. In the Queen’s English she tells the world about Indian cooking, explaining step by step, how to make lemony chicken or onion relish or tandoori prawns. She never exoticises these dishes, but quite the opposite, makes them relatable. There is no hyperventilating about taste and texture, instead it is as precise and exact as her cup measures. One realises how far the cross-cultural journey of food has come when she explains ‘ginger’ to the audience, “You might not be too familiar with it. It is like a potato that has gone a bit haywire. It has all kinds of knobs on it.” In her 1982 series for BBC television, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery she didn’t showcase our cuisine, instead she shared it. Food (and culture) is not to be marvelled at, like an artefact behind a vitrine, instead it is to be made, shared and enjoyed. Looking back at those episodes she says it was all intuitive rather than artifice. “I just thought every day I’m going to do something that’s honest and true. And let them see what is honest and true about Indians. And I was just going to represent the best of myself to the people and then let them think what they think. I thought just be yourself, as an actress.”
Over the last half century, Jaffrey has acted in 40-plus movies and shows, and written dozens of books. 2023 also marks the 50th anniversary of her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. But even today she is adamant about her identity. She is still the “actress who can cook” and not the chef who can act. It is, perhaps, because she sees herself as an actor first that she has so many avatars. She doesn’t identify as a chef, because she is not trained as one, and still chops “onions like a gharwali (housewife).” She says, “I slowly chop my onions, turn them around, keep chopping them. It’s not that I go like a whirlwind [mimics the sound]. I can’t do that. I’ll chop off my fingers!”
In her 2005 autobiography, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India she writes how she once helped teach “culinary guru James Beard’s” classes when he was ill. Towards the end of a session on ‘taste’, the American author, chef and television personality said, “Do you think there is such a thing as taste memory?” This got her thinking. And reminded her of how a friend had once asked her violinist husband, “Can you hear the music as you read it?” She writes, “When I left to study in England, I could not cook at all, but my palette had already recorded millions of flavours. From cumin to ginger, they were all in my head, waiting to be called to service. Rather like my husband, I could even ‘hear’ the honey on my tongue.”
The longevity of Jaffery’s cooking is because it comes from a place of nostalgia rather than expertise. She might not be trained as a chef, but she loves Indian cuisine, “from deep inside, from the part of the heart you don’t even know exists”. One of her favourite dishes, even today, is a simple hing aloo, which her mother used to make, and which was one of the first recipes she learned as a student in London. She says, “I still love those dishes that I ate as a child. I remember my father would make a mixture, sometimes, with the sauce that the beetroots had been cooked in and mix it with the meat sauce and then eat it with the roti. And how much joy he got from that combination. So, these are the kinds of things that you just remember, and when you eat them yourself, you’re not eating something delicious, you’re eating a memory of your parents and grandparents and great grandparents, so it becomes filled with emotion.” Even on a sterile Zoom call, one can taste her joy when she talks about dishes that she has enjoyed, whether it is mushrooms cooked with coconut milk, lemon juice and haldi that she had in Coorg, or bamboo shoots in Assam, or rice and spinach cooked together with lemon and olive oil in Greece.
“I still love those dishes that I ate as a child. My father would make a mixture with the sauce that the beetroots had been cooked in and the meat gravy. I remember how much joy he got from that. So, when you eat them yourself, you’re not eating something delicious, you’re eating a memory of your parents and grandparents,” says Madhur Jaffrey
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Jaffrey learned her cooking skills not from chefs and schools, but from homes and kitchens. She says, “I always go with a begging bowl.” She grew up in a mansion in Delhi’s Civil Lines, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins. She started with the food of only Delhi. Then from one sister-in-law she learned some Bengali cooking and from another one some Gujarati. She didn’t go to restaurants to seek out dishes, because they tend to not do “pure cuisine”. She says, “I like to go to homes, and I like to go there for breakfast, for lunch, for tea, for dinner. I ask them, ‘Tell me, how do you do this? What do you love? Why do you love it?’ And I don’t ask them for a recipe because people don’t know how to give recipes. I’ll just watch them make it.”
This watching is essential as it allows her to chronicle every step, from the strength of the flame to the vigour of the stirring to the size of the vessel. She says, “I will write all these things down in my book, and that’s why I think my recipes do well, because these are the details people don’t know. I don’t know. I’m an ignoramus to begin with. And I’m learning from these people who are showing me.” Does she ever hold anything back in her recipes from readers? “Never. Never. I want them to know more than I do,” she says emphatically.
In her travels across India, she has met numerous people who have opened their hearths and homes to her. But an incident from the 1980s that still sticks with her winds back to a fishing village in Tamil Nadu, where the menfolk were at sea and she found only an elderly woman. She walked into her hut where she was cooking a single crab. The lady insisted she try it, and while Jaffrey demurred as she knew this was likely to be shared with her family, she tried a tiny bite. Even today she can recall the spicy fresh crab meat cooked in a tamarind sauce. “It has stuck with me all these years later because it was this one woman left in a village, with one crab. Oh, my god. How beautiful.” She also recalls eating the finest homemade rotis served with tinda in a village in Pakistan. The roti had been made with wheat from the same village and that freshness was unbeatable. She says, “This was in Pakistan. But it is all the same. We are one people.”
I finally ask her about the sparky song ‘Nani’, where she inhales a joint, swears like a gangster and sways like a rapper. She says, “The lyrics are full of fuck this and that. But it didn’t bother me because I’m an actress. I’ve played Lady Macbeth. I’ve been a part of murder. So why would a little word throw me off? I’m an actress.” Generations of cooks in the kitchen, in India, the UK, and US, are glad for Jaffrey—the actress who introduced new flavours to some kitchens, and bestowed other kitchens with the taste of home.