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Spice Girl Madhur Jaffrey Speaks Candidly On India's Culinary Heritage

Madhur Jaffrey's experimentation with her mother's recipes moulded her love for food, Photo Credit: Getty Images
06 Min Read

Feisty as ever at 85, Madhur Jaffrey, the iconic ambassador of Indian cuisine in the west, gives an interview on how it's our responsibility to preserve India's culinary heritage

Ranee Sahaney
October 11 , 2018

OT Staff: What transformed a budding actor into a culinary diva? 
Madhur Jaffrey: Back in the late 1950s, when I was in London studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), I didn’t find good food anywhere. Not English, not French, not even Indian. So I wrote to my mother in Delhi and asked her to teach me something. She would send me recipes and I would cook them. I knew I wasn’t getting it right because I remembered the taste, so I kept experimenting. That’s why I give very specific instructions in my books. I started cooking more, and then I wrote to my cousins and aunts back home and started collecting recipes.

Then I moved to America, but as I wasn’t getting any work as an actress, I started writing on the arts. One day, someone asked me to write an article on my childhood, specifically on what I used to eat. I wrote it, and suddenly I was hijacked into this world of food, which I had not planned or studied for. I knew nothing about things like ‘knife skills’. I started learning, and then an editor asked me to write a cookbook, so I started working on that.

OT Staff: Tell us about your tryst with BBC. How did that happen?
Madhur Jaffrey: The BBC were looking for someone to cook on television. By now I had written the cookbook and they asked me to send them a tape. I used to teach cooking at the time, so I put the tape recorder on the fridge and taped myself. But I found the result very choppy, so I said into the mic: “This is not good, so I’m going to pretend I’m taking a teaching class and I’ll send you a half-hour tape of it.” They liked this pretend class and the idea that I could improvise for half an hour while nothing was actually going on. On the basis of that, they asked me to come and audition ‘if I was passing through London’. As a matter of fact, I did happen to be passing through London later on my way to India, and I gave the audition, which was also this ‘pretend’ thing, and they really liked it.

OT Staff: So your acting skills did come in handy... 
Madhur Jaffrey:
Yes, that’s right, they were needed. Acting gave me the confidence.

OT Staff: And the showmanship?
Madhur Jaffrey:
Yes, and the showmanship. I always say I’m pretending to do a role, that I’m acting the part of the cook. And this was another role and the biggest one for me, as I see it now. I got into the BBC series and that really started it all. I had written two cookbooks and they had sold modestly well. And then suddenly there was television, which kind of makes you big.

OT Staff: What was it like at that time to get recognition for Indian food in the United Kingdom? What was the response?
Madhur Jaffrey: The response was enormous. I think the English were ready for Indian food in the 1960s and 1970s. Westerners were travelling to India a lot, especially the British, and they were familiar with Indian food and ready to have it here as well. I think the BBC was quite shocked at the response. They had printed about 30,000 books and they were sold immediately. They were very happy the way it was going and so was I, as they did several serials with me after that.

It started as something really good and once you are known, the world is your oyster and you are ready to do anything.

OT Staff: How was it in the United States? 
Madhur Jaffrey: Bad. Not even a third of the success in England. America is always a less substantial market. They know little about Indian food as they have no deep connection with India unlike the British. So my books sold modestly there. They were always a critical success, but financially speaking they were mediocre.

OT Staff: How did the Indian diaspora in America react to your books? 
Madhur Jaffrey: I was very much a child of the diaspora at the time in many, many ways. A lot of young people in college would write to me. They were picking up my books—even American college kids—and were cooking from them. These kids taught their kids to cook my dishes and those parents taught their children to cook my food. That was really interesting. My first book is still in print and I get to meet young Americans who grew up with my cooking. So there are three generations that have used my cookbook in the family and that’s lovely.

OT Staff: What is your take on conserving India's culinary heritage? 
Madhur Jaffrey: What’s important for me is that our recipes are preserved. We shouldn’t be worrying about getting it into Unesco lists and all that. We should do it ourselves. I feel strongly about this. They may talk about our great food culture, but they are really not interested in it as we would be in preserving our own culinary heritage. We know our recipes and what they are and the context in which they exist. Nobody is going to care about it as much as we do. Physically I may not be very strong, but mentally I am determined about things that need to be accomplished, and this is something I feel for. We should be creating our own seed capsules. Why should we be sending our seeds for the capsule of another country?

OT Staff: You must have seen major changed in India's culinary scene in terms of variety, quality and technique over the years when you visit the country? 
Madhur Jaffrey: Yes, it’s incredible. But we need to make our own heritage indelible and present it in a better way.

OT Staff: For your vegetarian book, you decided to hit the road. How was the experience? 
Madhur Jaffrey: You see so much, learn so much on the road. You can get out of the car any time and share an experience at a dhaba, in a village or at someone’s home, and simply watch a dish being cooked. I also remember the time at the chilli auction—it was amazing. We all started sneezing and they handed out small tissues. That was a new experience. Something that stays in your mind when you talk about a recipe.

OT Staff: In your shows, you always make it an anecdotal experience. 
Madhur Jaffrey: Yes, because those dishes are intrinsic to the culture—historically and socially. I want people to see the larger picture, to connect viewers to the people to whom the recipes belong.

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