Her karma was korma. At 20, when Madhur Jaffrey left home for London to enrol in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), she had never stepped into a kitchen before. But fate―and her homesickness-fuelled recipes for korma, kheema and other culinary delights―changed Indian cooking forever. And kitchens around the world opened their doors to Indian flavours.
Jaffrey, now 90, logs in five minutes before the online meeting is to begin. She is at her home in upstate New York, and behind her are fuchsia-coloured walls. “People told me it would look like a brothel. I said, ‘Wait till it is finished,’” says Jaffrey. She is dressed impeccably in pale turquoise silk, her sleek hair resembling a helmet.
She still cooks. “I was so feeling aloo chole with not much mirch masala. So that is what I made,” she says. She no longer does grand dinner parties. “I don’t cook 15 dishes. I can’t do that. But I will cook every day. We cook simple things,” says Jaffrey.
At the peak of its popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, the BBC show Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery had Britain come to a standstill at 7pm every Monday. The story goes that the day after Jaffrey made ‘lemon coriander chicken’, the Manchester supermarkets ran out of coriander. At a time when Indians were not yet visible on television, the sight of the sari-clad Jaffrey with her crisp British accent revolutionising Indian cooking was powerful.
“I was interested in life in every aspect. So I could portray anything.” she says. “They knew it as a cultural programme―learn more about Indians, customs and Indian food. I think what carried across was my enthusiasm for everything, and my abilities as an actress.”
Her bestselling classic Indian Cookery has been reissued for its 40th anniversary. It is still very much the world’s textbook for Indian cooking. Jaffrey demystified Indian cuisine at a time when it was considered too exotic and complicated. She showed flair in adding anecdotal spice to recipes.
For her, food is personal. “It is about passing on love,” she says. “They say giving a morsel of food to your child is passing on your love for the child. It is true.”
Her cookbooks offer instructions, but her memoir Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India and her children’s book Seasons of Splendour offer a glimpse into just how integral food was for her. In her memoir, she writes about sneakily eating the gardener’s rotis, and the flavour of chilli and raw onion that still linger. Her writing is delicate, evocative and vivid, and it comes deeply soaked in memories of food.
“I remember my father taking beetroot sauce, adding meat sauce into it, and eating it with roti,” she says. “These are a kind of physical memories. They are also emotional memories, of families sitting down together to have a meal. I remember loving sucking bones. Everyone would finish; I would still be sucking bone. My mother would say, ‘This is awful. Go put it back.’ My father will say, ‘Let her be.’ He would let me suck it. He was very indulgent.”
It is a habit she still has, as the reissue of Indian Cookery reveals. New additions include dishes with meat and moong dal.
It was the memory of potato that lured Jaffrey into cooking. Homesickness at RADA drove her to make aloo hing wale, with the nuttiness of cumin and asafoetida that she describes in the tempering as sending up “its sulphurous and fart-like funk” in a piece she wrote for The New Yorker. By cooking the aloo as per her mother’s three-line recipe, Jaffrey recreated the flavours of home.
Her nostalgia-seeped memories and measured recipes introduced Indian flavours to tables across the world. Fifty years later, she still has the box of hing her mother sent her. The smells still lingers.
Jaffrey may be the queen of Indian cooking, but she is more than just a cook. She is also an actress―a facet that does not get that much attention. “I would love [another] role,” she says. “I would love it. I don’t know how strong I am to do it; I am a little frail. But I would love another role.”
Jaffrey was instrumental in the celluloid marriage of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and acted in several of their movies. “I remember the time I had done Shakespeare Wallah, and it had won an award and was being shown to the vice president of India. My father was walking along with the vice president and he said, ‘Acting is just her hobby.’ He never took it seriously. He thought I was a child having fun.”
And it was fun when Jaffrey did it. She make it seem like fun. Perhaps it is her breeziness about being a pioneer that makes Jaffery not only an icon, but also likeable, relatable and refreshing. “I wanted to do something,” she says. “I just did not want to be like my mother. I love my mother. She taught me what she could teach me. I learnt sewing from her. Knitting, too. I wanted more. I just knew that I cannot just sit at home and get an arranged marriage and then just go on with life. My parents understood it. My mother asked, ‘We have found this wonderful boy, would you be interested? I said no. She never asked me again.”
Jaffrey did eventually marry, twice. “I was, I guess, a rebellious young person. I did not like the position of men in society,” she says. “I felt I was always put down. First you listen to your father and your brothers. There is nothing you do that you decide on your own. But with my father being what he was, he sort of said yes to whatever I wanted.”
Would she have listened if he had said no? “Probably not,” she says.