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Madhur Jaffrey's no fuss introduction to Indian cooking

Madhur Jaffrey, Indian-American actress, chef and author, poses for a portrait leading up to the release of "An Invitation to Indian Cooking: 50th Anniversary Edition" at her home in Hillsdale, New York, US, on Friday, June 23, 2023.
Gabriela Bhaskar for NPR
Madhur Jaffrey, Indian-American actress, chef and author, poses for a portrait leading up to the release of "An Invitation to Indian Cooking: 50th Anniversary Edition" at her home in Hillsdale, New York, US, on Friday, June 23, 2023.

Your mouth will water just listening to Madhur Jaffrey talk about the mangoes and peaches of her childhood. Her eyes glisten as she flips through one of her cookbooks featuring photos of India's famous Alphonso mangoes.

"They're sitting in like a nest waiting to hatch, waiting to be eaten," the Indian cookbook author and actress told NPR's Michel Martin in an interview for Morning Edition at Jaffrey's home.

Her family's orchard in Delhi was a sanctuary of luscious fruit. And today, she's surrounded by a bountiful supply of fruit and vegetables that she grows at her Hillsdale, New York, home.

At 89, she remains an avid gardener and she still loves to cook. But she didn't learn how to cook until she was homesick.

"I did not train to cook," Jaffrey said. "When I left home in India, I couldn't cook."

She was in her 20s, living in London and focused on her acting aspirations at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. The canteen options left a lot to be desired.

"I remember eating this kind of see-through slice of roast beef that was gray; cabbage that was watery and gray, potatoes that were watery and gray," Jaffrey said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, think of these potatoes with cumin and asafoetida - how wonderful that would be!'"

That's when she wrote to her mother who sent her very simple three-line letters of advice: "Take this, take that, stir that around, roast it a little bit and then cook it until it's done," which was enough to get her started on making food she craved while far from home.

Jaffrey would become a household name in the 1980s and go on to host a cooking show on the BBC. The day after she cooked a chicken with cilantro dish on the program, her fans in the city of Manchester bought every bit of cilantro available.

Madhur Jaffrey's books are known by anyone who has searched for authentic Indian food recipes. Her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, published in 1973. It will be re-released in November to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its publication.

Madhur Jaffrey, Indian-American actress, chef and author, poses for a portrait leading up to the release of "An Invitation to Indian Cooking: 50th Anniversary Edition" at her home in Hillsdale, New York, US, on Friday, June 23, 2023.
/ Gabriela Bhaskar for NPR
/
Gabriela Bhaskar for NPR
Madhur Jaffrey, Indian-American actress, chef and author, poses for a portrait leading up to the release of "An Invitation to Indian Cooking: 50th Anniversary Edition" at her home in Hillsdale, New York, US, on Friday, June 23, 2023.

These highlights from the interview with Madhur Jaffrey have been edited for clarity.

Michel Martin: How have you continued to stay so productive and fresh and passionate about this work?

Madhur Jaffrey: I love to eat. When you love to eat, you say, 'Oh, this is possible.' You keep thinking of the possibilities. And I never took it seriously; that's the other thing. I took acting seriously and never got the acting jobs I wanted. I didn't take this seriously, and I kept getting more and more offers to do this and do that and the other.

Michel Martin: The tone of your books is so inviting. You're not patronizing. You say, "I'm going to start off with the easy recipes and we are going to work our way up." And you're not shy about substitutions.

I want people to cook this food. If they don't come 100-percent there, they come 99-percent there. I want them to learn about it. Then they'll want to go 100-percent.

There's no exact way, even in India. Every home is different. The same dish in a different home – I would want to go and eat the same dish in somebody else's house because it would be different from mine. That would be an adventure for me. There would be little nuances that would be different and I would love that.

Michel Martin: How has cooking Indian food changed since your first book? Can you find some really excellent Indian food in a restaurant?

Yes, because these young guys that have taken over – all these young chefs, they're trying to do it, the way they want to do it and that is a big difference. And they're new and expensive. And saying, look at me, we can do this. We can make you pay $150 for a meal and we'll give you something real, something that tastes like we want to taste, we Indians want it to taste.

Michel Martin: There are anti-democratic trends in India. What do you make of it?

It's a tricky subject because of the politics that comes into it. I feel very strongly that we should be a democracy, where Hindus and Muslims have equality, all religions. We had it when Nehru was there as our first prime minister. We had total equality for Hindus and Muslims.

Michel Martin: What about here, as an Indian American?

Same here. All the Indians here are equally divided. There is a strong element that is the anti-Muslim element that is very powerful amongst the Indians in America. But there's also the other element. People like me who always said can't we get along? Can't we live together? So there are these two sides and they co-exist.

Michel Martin: It's been such a joy meeting you. Your book was so much part of my learning to be a young adult on my own and entertain in my own style. Do you have advice for someone who is making their way as you once did as a young woman in the world?

Know what you want, and keep going the way you want to go. And, let the chips fall where they may. But do what you want without hurting anyone. That's my way of doing things.

The audio version of this story was produced by Kaity Kline and Claire Murashima. It was edited by Reena Advani. The digital version was edited by Erika Aguilar.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.