(January 16, 2024) Renowned for securing the best actress award at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival for her portrayal of a pompous Bollywood star in Merchant Ivory’s film ‘Shakespeare Wallah’, Madhur Jaffrey is a trailblazer in the culinary world. She has brought the delights of Indian cuisine, along with its diverse regional nuances, to successive generations of Western cooks. Recently, the 50th anniversary edition of her debut cookbook ‘An Invitation to Indian Cooking’ got released by the publishing group, Knopf. With its original edition 50 years back, the book had announced the arrival of a culinary star.
2023 also saw the release of the 40th anniversary edition of Madhur’s another popular cookbook, ‘Indian Cookery’, updated with 11 new recipes. The first edition of the book was groundbreaking, coinciding with a BBC series of the same name featuring Madhur, and it went on to sell lakhs of copies. Madhur has authored more than 30 cookbooks in her illustrious career. At 90, the workaholic is far from slowing down. One of the biggest living authorities on Indian cuisine, Madhur keeps herself busy by educating Gen Z and Gen Alpha through her Masterclass on digital media. “Nobody knows spices like we do, we are masters,” she announced proudly in its trailer.
“When my programme came on air, there weren’t any Indian cookery shows, it was an immediate hit,” Madhur Jaffrey told the BBC, talking about her ground breaking cookery programme that premiered in the United Kingdom 40 years ago.
The Padma Bhushan 2022 awardee grew up in Delhi and left for London in her 20s to study at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She became an actress and later, turned to writing cookery books and presenting cookery shows. Little did she know that this career transition would turn out to be a significant step towards introducing India’s soft power to the western world.
Indian food is a magical world where the art of using spices is so advanced that we’ve created a cuisine that exists nowhere else in the world!
Her debut cookbook, an Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973) introduced Indian food to western hemisphere for the first time. It was later inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006.
When she was hired by BBC to present her cookery show – Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, it was meant to be an educational programme. The aim was to make people learn about Indian culture by introducing them to authentic food cooked in different regions of India. The show mesmerised people so much that Madhur soon became known as ‘spice girl’, thanks to the plethora of South Asian spices she introduced to the western homes. She was popularly called ‘the actress who can cook.’
Building respectful image of South Asians
“Until then, the South Asians were not represented the way they would have loved to see themselves on the television and cinema,” she said, in the interview with BBC.
Madhur’s career transition had filled in the much-desired space with elan. Her show was the first mainstream series about Indian food to be broadcast in the UK and also the first one to be presented by an Indian.
Characteristically dressed in a crisp cotton saree, Madhur Jaffrey became the face of the South Asian diaspora in the UK. She knew this, tailoring her image to that of an attractive Indian who is modern, yes, but remains tied to her roots. That was the pre-internet era, so Madhur used to get flooded with letters of appreciation from her fans.
Ruling the supermarkets
If Madhur was exotic, the food she cooked seemed even more so to the uninitiated Western audiences. In fact, her recipes became so popular that Indian food was “tried by everybody all over England and beyond’. “The day I cooked chicken with green coriander, they ran out of green coriander in Manchester,” laughs the food expert.
The demand for Indian spices and ingredients grew so much that supermarkets started overstocking the ingredients that the Global Indian used in her cookery show.
The spice girl from India
In the introduction to her cookbook, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, she writes, “The techniques used in Indian cooking are not any different from those used the world over: roasting, grilling, steaming, frying, stewing, braising and so on.” Yet it is distinct she emphasises.
What gives Indian cuisine its uniqueness, its tingling excitement, and its health-giving properties is the knowledgeable use of spices and seasonings, ancient in its provenance.
The food expert has authored close to thirty bestselling cookbooks on Indian, Asian and world vegetarian cuisine, and has appeared in several related television programmes. Apart from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery that premiered in 1982, she presented Madhur Jaffrey’s Far Eastern Cookery (1989) and Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India (1995).
What made her shows and books relevant for decades was the fact that she adapted to the time constraints of her fans. In one of her book introductions, Madhur shared, “My own cooking has changed over the years. I am often as rushed for time as perhaps you are. I am often asking myself is there an easier way to do this?”
Madhur made sure, therefore, to simplify her cooking to match with the times.
I now try to reach real Indian tastes by using simpler methods and fewer steps
The seven times winner of James Beard award wrote in one of her books.
As she made a huge name for herself in the traditional yet novel segment, Madhur went on to associate herself as food consultant of one of the most popular Indian restaurants in New York City – Dawat.
Madhur has also written three children’s books and two memoirs – Sweet Memories (2002) and Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India (2006).
Strengthening cultural relations between continents
Before becoming a television personality and delving into the domains of food and travel writing, Madhur had made a mark for herself as an Indian-British-American actress, starting with minor acting roles on BBC television and radio. One of her notable works is the film, Shakespeare Wallah (1965) for which she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress award at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival.
During the course of her acting career, she enthralled audiences with her performances in television, films, radio and theatre. Perhaps this background contributes to her eloquence as a food presenter.
Her cookery shows have always been lively with powerful punchlines like:
Each grain of rice should be like brothers, close to each other but not stuck together.
After a divorce from Sayeed Jaffery, the notable actor who is father to her three daughters, Madhur married an American violinist. The couple have now been together for 56 years.
In recognition of her contribution to cultural relations between the UK, India and the United States, through film, television and cookery, Madhur was named the honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004. Padma Bhushan 2022, the third highest civilian award from the Government of India, is a testament of her service to Indian culinary art.
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