Much before the Gaggan Anands and Rajiv Mehrotras of the world globalised Indian cuisine, there was Madhur Jaffrey who introduced our tikkas and curries to the rest of the world. Hers is a fascinating story, one that began in 1933 in pre-Independence Delhi and travelled through other regions of India before reaching Europe and America where she made a name as a celebrated cookbook writer, author, radio, film and theatre personality. An award winning actress (her role in Shakespeare Wallah won her the Best Actress trophy at the Berlin International Film Festival way back in 1965), Madhur was one of the earliest ‘crossover’ stars along with then husband, the legendary Saeed Jaffrey.
Yet, it was her passion for cooking that defined her for many of her fans. An affair that began in her traditional kitchen with cooks whipping up delicious Mughlai cuisine, got nurtured during her days in London, studying drama (thanks to recipes sent by her mother) and brought her fame in the rest of the world. What followed were best-selling recipe books, including the seminal An Invitation to Indian Cooking and A Taste of India and hugely popular TV shows like Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery.
Now, all of a sprightly 84, Madhur is all set to regale audiences in Dubai at the forthcoming Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature where she will narrate her culinary adventures around the world, give a glimpse into her rich and eventful life as an actress and share some of her cooking secrets! A few of which she shared in this exclusive interview with us…
What are some of your favourite early food memories growing up in Delhi? What do you miss the most about them now?
There are so many! Eating foods from the garden: little chickpea shoots with salt; green, sour mangoes with salt, ground roasted cumin and chili powder, tamarinds from our very large tree; eating fresh peas, fresh tomatoes and fresh kohlrabi, all raw.
What was the biggest challenge of introducing Indian cuisine to a non-Indian audience back in the day? How has the perception of South Asian food changed in the West over the years?
The UK and the US are different. The UK already knew Indian food from their long history with India. But they did not know the real Indian food that we ate in our homes. When I started doing my TV shows there, they readily accepted and cooked all the dishes I made. The US had no history with India and really no knowledge of Indian food. It has been a battle to entice them. Things are improving slowly.
During your travels, the cuisine of which region of India has fascinated you the most and why?
I love foods from all different states of India. I love how Bengalis steam their fish, how people in Andhra make their savoury pancake called pesarattu. I love the biryanis of Hyderabad and the appams (a family of rice flour noodles and pancakes) of Kerala. I can sit down to a simple meal of Kashmiri haack (greens cooked in mustard oil) and rice any day or aloo-poori from Delhi or Uttar Pradesh. I love the bhel poori from Maharashtra as well as their delicious fried fish in a red masala.
What are your inspirations when it comes to creating a new recipe? Can you give an example of how you incorporate your travels or interactions with other cultures into a recipe?
One never stops learning. I remember seeing someone in Australia half dry cherry tomatoes in a slow oven with a little thyme, tarragon and rosemary on them. Then she added these to a dish of stir-fried baby okra. It was a delicious combination. I came home and dried cherry tomatoes with cumin, coriander, turmeric and chili powder on them, then did a tarka of mustard seeds, red chilies and a little garlic, added the baby okra, stir-fried them and then added the semi-dried tomatoes and stir fried a bit more. It was delicious!
How, in your view, can one attract the millennial to the wealth of Indian culinary heritage?
There are two basic ways to do this: expose them to all kinds of Indian foods, from kati kababs to appams and lead them to good cook books so that they can start cooking themselves.
Molecular gastronomy and progressive cuisines are the buzz words in Indian food, especially in the UAE. Do you think modern techniques and twists to ancient recipes rob them of their uniqueness? Are you a purist when it comes to cooking?
No one can be a complete purist as foods are constantly evolving. Even in India’s long history, foods changed as India was subjected to different invasions, to the influences of different religions, and to new foods coming in both from the north by land and from the south by sea. We are attracted to new things and nothing will change that. As for what stays and what will just pass us by, only time can tell.
What are the three cooking tips you would give the busy working woman?
Cook at home. This way you control what goes into your meal from the salt to the oil, the children see you cooking and they will do the same one day, and a family tradition will get established. Find simple things your family likes but do not be afraid to introduce new things. I always told my children that they had to try everything. They did not have to finish it but they had to try it. Now my children, all grown, have very few things they will not eat.
Cook food for several days if that makes your life easier. A stew, a curry, a dal can be made in quantity and either frozen or just kept in the fridge for several days. I often marinate chicken kababs and then freeze them in family-sized batches. Just take a batch out the night before, put it in the fridge and when you come home from work, take it out of the refrigerator and either grill or stir fry over high heat. Add lots of sliced onions, chilies for those who like them and roll up in pita bread or chapati and eat with a big salad.
What are your three absolute favourite dishes from the Indian kitchen? And what is the one ingredient that you can never do without?
I have so many. I love a good pullao, aloo-poori and Konkani-style fried fish with red masala. I do not have an ingredient I cannot do without.
Food critics have become rather influential these days. In your view, what should a writer keep in mind while judging a dish? After all, isn’t taste a very subjective thing?
Food critics come in many shapes and sizes. Most, in my mind, are second rate who want to eat and enjoy their power but don’t want to do their homework. You need some background, some knowledge about the foods you are eating and reviewing. You have to have traveled and eaten around the world, in small and big restaurants and in homes. That is your homework. You have to have a good palate. Not every food critic does. Then you taste and judge.
Finally, is cooking an art or science?
It is an art, a craft, science and a bit of magic.
INFO: Madhur Jaffrey will be speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature from 1-10 March 2018. Get your Early Bird Discount Tickets at tickets.emirateslitfest.com