"The Actress Who Could Cook": How Madhur Jaffrey Popularized Indian Cuisine In The West

L: Madhur Jaffrey R: A copy of her cookbook ' Far Eastern Cookery'
L: Madhur Jaffrey R: A copy of her cookbook ' Far Eastern Cookery'L: Conde Nast Traveller India R: Amazon.in

Cooking is a perfect blend of art and science. In chemistry, you have to use the right measurements, specific equipment, and right chemicals to brew the perfect mixture. That sounds a lot like making art, doesn’t it? Anyone can procure a canvas and a box of watercolors. But only with the right technical skill and know-how, can you produce a good painting. If you are into the culinary arts and also dabble with watercolor, you’ll know the importance of water and how significant it is to control its flow. While eating is necessary, cooking is an art as well as science. It is a reflection of one’s creativity and knowledge. Something which attracts the palate and stimulates the tongue can always win the heart and soul. That's probably why we have the expression "The way to a man's heart (or anyone's, really) is through his stomach."

Inventive and unique recipes have their own language and characteristic individuality. I've seen my grandmother very protective of her personal cookbook — a treasure that you rarely catch a glimpse of.

Speaking of cookbooks brings us to one of the most influential writers responsible for bringing Indian cuisine to the palates of the Western world — Madhur Jaffrey. She burst into the world of cooking with her debut cookbook An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), which was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006. Following that she has written over 15 cookbooks including Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible and Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, which are now considered classics in the field. Jaffrey has also appeared in several cooking shows over the years, of which her most popular appearance was Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery, which aired in the UK in 1982.

She was born in British India in 1933 andhad a first-hand experience of India’s Partition in 1947. At her Delhi home, Jaffrey's family primarily ate food prepared overseen by the women of the family. From time to time, they indulged in Mughlai cuisine bought in the bylanes of Old Delhi. The refugees from Punjab who settled in Delhi post-partition brought their unique style of cooking. Moti Mahal, a dhaba in Daryaganj, introduced tandoori chicken and then went on to invent butter chicken and dal makhani. From her days of youth, Jaffrey was extremely fond of the simplicity and freshness of Punjabi food.

It's somewhat interesting to note that Jaffrey never even went to the kitchen as a child. It's even funnier when you think about it that someone who would go on to become of the most renowned Indian cooks failed her domestic science classes. Her lessons included preparing dishes like the European dessert, blancmange, whose bland taste drove Jaffrey to dismiss the cookery lessons as preparing "British invalid foods from circa 1930".

What makes Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks so unique is how her recipes or cooking methodologies are intertwined with her diasporic experience. She did not take up cooking until the age of 19 when she went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). In London, she mastered the art of cooking using recipes of familiar dishes that were provided in correspondence from her mother. Her editor, Judith Jones wrote in her memoirs that Jaffrey was the perfect cookbook writer essentially because she had learned to cook childhood comfort food as an adult, and primarily from her mother’s written instructions.

Apart from her prowess as a cookbook writer, Jaffrey is also a renowned actor and theatre practitioner. In the 1960s, after her award-winning performance in Shakespeare Wallah, she came to be known as the "actress who could cook". After the BBC hired her to appear on their cooking show, she received global acclaim. Her life as a theatre practitioner had taken her to New York City in 1958. She was the food consultant at Dawat (now closed), which was considered by many food critics to be among the best Indian restaurants in New York City.

Jaffrey is now 89 years young and has lived a fulfilling, exciting, and successful life as an artist and writer. She was recently on the news upon being awarded The James Beard Foundation’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award, becoming the first South Asian to win since the Foundation established the awards in 1990. The Foundation wrote that “The award recognizes an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America.” This award makes her a nine-time James Beard Award winner. The Foundation has also recognized her cookbooks From Curries to Kebabs (2004), Madhur Jaffrey’s Step-by-Step Cooking (2002), Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian (2000), and Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of the Far East (1994).

The plaudits are just the icing on the cake. She has had an illustrious career and has cemented her place in the history books of the cooking world.

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