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‘I learnt by watching a dish being made’: Madhur Jaffrey

Madhur Jaffrey, the grande dame of South Asian food in the West, speaks about her accidental career as a celebrity chef, and her food philosophy

Madhur Jaffrey, a legend of South Asian cuisine, didn’t begin cooking seriously until she was 20.
Madhur Jaffrey, a legend of South Asian cuisine, didn’t begin cooking seriously until she was 20. (Rohit Chawla)

At 86, Madhur Jaffrey radiates glamour. As she walks in for our interview during her recent visit to India, she looks diminutive, smiling and genial, but there’s no mistaking the steel underneath her sunny disposition (if you haven’t seen her impersonation of an expletive-spouting grandmother in a music video called Nani by the rapper Mr Cardamom, please look it up).

Jaffrey speaks in crisp sentences, her accent clipped, thoughts articulated with careful deliberation. This affinity for precision is also germane to what she is best known for—an icon who took food from the subcontinent to the world. She is to South Asian cooking what Julia Child is to French cuisine.

And yet, for all this celebrity, Jaffrey did not begin to cook seriously until she was 20. In her memoir, Climbing The Mango Trees (2005), she writes of her aversion to taking the cooking lessons that were part of her school curriculum and failing the cookery examinations. However, as life would have it, her relationship with cooking began to improve soon after, when she went to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada) in London in the 1950s.

“I hated British food," Jaffrey says, with an edge in her voice, as we sit down to chat on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, where she was a speaker. The meals at the Rada canteen, she tells me, were especially miserable (“see-through slices of beef and cabbage that tasted as though it had been cooked for days"). “Every day, I would dream of the khade masale ka gosht and hing zeere ka aloo made by my mother back home in Delhi." When she wrote to her seeking help, her mother sent her “three-line recipes": “Pehle masale thoda andaz se bhun do, phir paka do paani ke saath (First, fry the spices a bit, then cook them with a little water)." This rough-and-ready approach didn’t sit well with her.

“By nature, I am a perfectionist," Jaffrey says. “When Judith Jones (her late editor at Knopf, who also published Child) signed me on for my first cookbook in the late 1960s, I thought I would be done in a few months. In the end, it took me five years to finish the book (An Invitation To Indian Cooking was published in 1973)." In her early days in the kitchen—before she married her first husband, the late actor Saeed Jaffrey, and had three children in quick succession—her culinary adventures were touch and go. “But I remembered the original taste of each dish, so I knew it when I had gone wrong," Jaffrey says. “People are born with one sense that dominates their personality. In my case, it is taste."

A keen perception of taste, or rather the memory of the exact shades of taste, is key to successful cooking. As a celebrity television chef and cookbook writer, Jaffrey is finicky about communicating the specific nuances of a recipe to her audience. “I fuss over the smallest details, not only about the ingredients, but also the size of the pot, its thickness, whether it should have a tight-fitting lid, and so on," she says. “I assume my readers in the UK and the US won’t know these things, as I didn’t when I started cooking."

Jaffrey had no idea, when she wrote her first article on food (commissioned by Holiday magazine in the 1960s about what she ate as a child) that one day she would become the grande dame of Indian cooking. In the beginning, she ventured to only write about the food she ate in Delhi. But soon, she was travelling across India, observing the ways in which people from different communities cook.

“I never asked for recipes but learnt by watching a dish being made," Jaffrey says. “I would notice aanch kitni hai (the intensity of the flame), ghee kitna dala hai (how much ghee is put), yeh halke halke chala rahe hai ya jaldi (if they are stirring it fast or slowly). You can pick up these cues only by paying close attention to every step of the process." She took furious notes while watching, then deciphered her illegible writing and copied it all out in another notebook later the same day.

In her decades-long career in the industry, Jaffrey has witnessed sea changes in the production and consumption of food. “Foods are becoming deadly weapons now," she says. “A few years ago I remember eating corn from a street vendor in the south, and it was terrible." Not only has the taste of food morphed—in the worst cases it has totally vanished—but certain cultures have also become extinct. With Partition, for instance, the diversity of the subcontinental palate became fragmented. Having grown up in a large joint family in Delhi with close ties to Hindu, Muslim and British cultures, Jaffrey experienced the passing of this cosmopolitan legacy from India’s national life with a personal pang.

And now, with the ascendance of cloud kitchens and food-delivery apps, there’s a slump in the public’s interest in cooking. “People are snacking these days rather than eating," Jaffrey says. “I don’t like that at all." She isn’t averse to technology—last year she wrote a book about Indian cooking suited to the Instant Pot. The kitchen of her home in upstate New York, where she lives with her musician husband Sanford Allen, has many gadgets. What she disapproves of, though, is flippancy. For her, even comfort food has to be prepared with care and affection (“I love anything noodley, a moong dal with hing-zeera chownk and rice, a good chaat").

“I have faith in the Ayurvedic belief that when you cook for your child or family, you are not only giving them food, but also passing your love on to them," Jaffrey says.

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