Q & A With Madhur Jaffrey, Part 2: Martha Stewart, The Definition of Vindaloo + Collating for Ismail Merchant
In the first part of our conversation with Madhur Jaffrey, the Delhi-born legendary actress, award-winning cookbook author and Indian cuisine authority spoke to us about her latest movie, a foodie comedy in which she plays a peppily invasive mom called Today's Special, about how she learned to cook by following the hand-written recipes her mother sent to her in London via airmail, and that the Indian spice asafetida is actually a powerful de-gassing agent when combined with beans.
In the second part, Jaffrey, 77, kicks things off with an anecdote about the famous producing-directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory and the former's love of using his dinner guests as temporary secretaries. Check back later today for her recipe for Chicken Thighs with Vindaloo Spices. Jaffrey recently made it on Martha Stewart. Martha even liked it. And what Martha says goes.
Squid Ink: In "At Home With..." you tell a great story about how Ismail Merchant, one-half of the filmmaking team of Merchant-Ivory, who made "Shakespeare Wallah," -- which you starred in -- "A Room With a View" and "Howards End," and who you've been credited with pairing. You say Merchant was one of those people who could make a lovely dinner out of anything. Can you elaborate?
Madhur Jaffrey:[laughs] We would arrive. Very often there was a purpose to our coming, like to collate manuscripts. But he wouldn't tell us that.
SI: Pardon? Did you say that he'd invite you over for dinner and then ask you to collate manuscripts?
MJ: Yes! We'd be the labor. He'd say, "Oh, I just have to run out to get some things for dinner. Here are the pages that need to be collated." And there'd be, like, four of us and we'd be on the floor collating this stuff. Then he'd run out and get very basic things like fish or meat and dal. He'd have nothing. Then he'd come back very quickly and start cooking while we were collating and it would be simple, but delicious. He had what we say in India, a "good hand." He knew how to put enough of the right things in the food so it tasted good. He'd make the same things again and again and again.
He made a daal. He made a wonderful shrimp with halved cherry tomatoes. It was delicious. And he would make rice and a salad. As we went on, he started baking fish, a whole fish he'd put in the oven and just throw some spices over it and set it to bake. His mother always sent him a wonderful huge jar of mango pickles and that would always be there on the table as well. So it was to supplement whatever else might be missing in the food. But the whole meal was always delicious.
SI: I'm not sure I would ever attempt an Ismail Merchant "dine-and-collate" dinner party. But I love the idea of serving simple, delicious food to friends. What's a quick, foolproof recipe in your new cookbook?
MJ: There's a vindaloo, like in every restaurant. With a vindaloo there are spices you roast and grind, you have to soak this, soak that. I cut it down. Mainly it's vinegar - which is the "vin" part - and garlic. You need those. You also need black peppercorns. But instead of roasting and grinding them, I very simply throw them into hot oil. Then I add a few more spices. Then I cook chicken thighs in it. It takes twenty minutes from start to finish. It's tart and vinegary and as hot as you want it. I was on the Martha Stewart show yesterday and I did the Vindaloo Chicken. We both ate it at the end. I'd forgotten how simple and wonderful it was.
SI: Let's move on to beverages. Do you serve cold Kingfisher premium lager? Or wine?
MJ: I NEVER serve beer. If your food is of great quality, you can serve a very good French wine or a shiraz from Australia or an Argentinian wine. Even Bordeauxs. It depends on the quality of what you're cooking. If you're doing a whole leg of lamb in the Indian way, go ahead and serve a great red. In England, when the curry houses spread out everywhere and were very cheap and the food was bad quality and poorly cooked all the students ate it and drank a lot of beer with it. The association of cheap Indian food and beer is so lodged in my head that I can't shake it out. [laughs] But if any of my son-in-laws want beer, I definitely have it.
SI: Do you have any memories of your mother in the kitchen when you were growing up in Delhi?