Key ingredient: A WKND interview with cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey

Madhur Jaffrey, 89, claims she is not really a cook. Just an actor playing a role.

    (HT Archive) premium
(HT Archive)

She never trained as a chef, doesn’t chop her onions evenly, just cooks what a housewife would do for her family. (What she studied, she points out, is acting; she spent years on TV, writing, acting and performing.)

Yet, this year, she became the first person of South Asian descent to win the prestigious James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. This comes a year after the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan, the country’s third highest civilian honour.

“They are both the pinnacle of my career, and I feel very honored,” says Jaffrey. “I’m constantly working, so it’s nice to get this recognition. I’m not looking for it. But it feels really warm and wonderful that other people are watching and listening.

People have been watching and listening for some time. Jaffrey is credited with teaching the West how to cook Indian food. Over 50 years, she published dozens of cookbooks. Several have become bestsellers, including his first, An Invitation to Indian Food (1973). They are known and loved for the depth of detail in the recipes, and the historical context woven into the notes on the dishes and ingredients, which themselves represent the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent.

Jaffrey also had a successful career on television, introducing Indian cuisine to British audiences at a time when the latter, despite hundreds of years of colonial rule, still described the country’s complex culinary tapestry with the single word “curry”. Jaffrey’s BBC Show – which included the popular Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery; 1982, and Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavors of India; 1995 – New ground is broken. It was rare to see a mainstream TV show about food, and even rarer to see it hosted by an Indian.

It helped that he was already famous to a degree. Jaffrey got his big break in the 1965 Merchant-Ivory film Shakespeare’s Wallah. As an actor, she is still best known for her portrayal of the jealous Bollywood star Manjula, for which she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival that year.

A year before that big break, her divorce from actor Saeed Jaffrey left her with three children to care for. There was little money to be made from the limited roles available to Indian actresses, so Jaffrey began writing about food and travel and conducting cooking classes to supplement her income.

She would marry violinist Sanford Allen in 1967 (they remain happily married), but retained a passion for food. This allowed her to be a “one-woman band” as she put it.

“I do everything myself. I shop, I cook, I clean, I write, I clean, I edit. I travel, and I love it. I don’t accept any help because I want people to do the best I can. I don’t believe I can.”


Jaffrey was the fifth of six children born to a well-to-do joint family in Delhi, a ghee factory manager named Raj Bans Bahadur and a housewife named Kashmiran Rani.

The food prepared by the cook under the supervision of the lady of the house is an indelible part of his memory of that time. “You remember the smell of basmati rice and mung beans cooking in the kitchen and that means your hunger pangs will be gone soon,” says Jaffrey. “It was a very basic taste that I grew nostalgic about and in love with. Even today, if you give me mung dal and basmati rice and a little pickle, I’m very happy. I don’t want anything else.”

Jaffrey first picked up a stick in the 1950s when she left home at the age of 19 to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). While she trained to be an actor, she taught herself to cook from recipes her mother mailed her from India.

He likes to cook. An article in The New York Times in 1966 headlined that the Indian actress also stars in the kitchen. Although hers were not the first Indian cookbooks aimed at a Western audience, she effectively demystified Indian cooking, and weaved in personal stories and historical context, traveling across the country to research recipes and cuisine.

Her daughters Zia, Meera and Sakina now help her with legal processes especially around her work. There is still a lot to teach people about Indian food, says Jaffrey.

She still acts. She starred in an episode of And Just Like That… (2021) and had a recurring role on the 2018 show I Feel Bad. In 2019, she played American rapper Mr. Cardamom’s potty-mouthed grandmother, in the music video for his song Nani.

“He showed me the words and the words were … you could say very scary. They were dirty words,” she said. “But, you know, I’m an actress. I’ve played Lady Macbeth. I’ve done murder. That doesn’t mean I’m a murderer, it just means I’m playing a role. And so I said yes to him right away.

She still cooks, though not every day. “I made a mushroom ragu and polenta yesterday. There was a lot, so I’m going to pack the polenta into bread and brown it on both sides, and use the same ragu today. Sprinkle some Parmesan on it and we’re good to go.”

And she’s working on a book. “There’s always more to do,” she says. “But at my age, I take it a little slower.” She stops and smiles. “A little too late.”

slice of life

* Madhur Jafri, 89, is an avid gardener and cooks his own meals. In his garden in upstate New York, daffodils and narcissus that he associated with Kashmir are everywhere. “Within the next month, we will put the vegetables on the ground. I grow everything from tomatoes, peas, beans and beets to ghia (bottle gourds). I love ghee in dal,’ she says.

* She likes “a little chili in everything.” “I’ve gotten better at it with age… I also like avocado, lime juice and a little chili powder on toast,” she says.

* Among Indian food, one category she doesn’t like much is sweets. “We had all kinds of access growing up, and I got tired of it,” she says. “I never developed a sweet tooth, probably as a result.”

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