Q & A With Madhur Jaffrey: She Cooks, She Acts, She Writes, etc.
When Madhur Jaffrey arrived at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she was a Delhi-born 19-year-old from a wealthy family and so accustomed to being waited on that even the most rudimentary cooking skills eluded her. In the end, it was her inability to find authentic Indian food in 1950s England that made her go DIY and start trying to make her favorite dishes herself. Over more than a dozen cookbooks later (six of them James Beard award winners), the 77-year-old Jaffrey has often been credited as one of the key reasons why the Western world is so familiar with curries, biryanis and vindaloos. In the land of movies, however, particularly indie films, she is known as an award-winning actress.
This month, her two hemispheres overlap: She has a new cookbook out called At Home With Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in the film Today's Special, written by and starring Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show), Jaffrey plays a loving, traditionalist mother trying to push her chef son into an arranged marriage. In this two-part interview, Jaffrey explains to Squid Ink such matters as why asafetida is an essential part of Indian cooking, how producer-director Ismail Merchant could get his dinner guests to multi-task, and why her recipe for chicken thighs is the perfect entry-level dish for newbie cooks.
Squid Ink: Indian food is so prevalent in "Today's Special" that the movie is being called a "tandoori comedy." Did that kind of attention to cuisine make its way into the on-set catering?
Madhur Jaffrey: We were filming in Jackson Heights.
SI: The Little India of Queens!
MJ: Most of the time we got absolutely great local Indian food. Sometimes we'd get salads because we'd worry that the crew might tire of it. But then we'd go back to getting the local food or eating at the local kabob house next door. In Jackson Heights there's all kinds of diners and not the grandest of restaurants, but cheap, good, neighborhood places doing south Indian food, Gujarati food, Pakistani food. It was great for me. I used to do all my shopping there, there'd be all the spices and every odd vegetable that is used in Indian cooking and can't find in Manhattan. I'd go home with bags of groceries. [laughs]
SI: "Today's Special" was made on a shoestring budget. Were you ever asked to double as food stylist?
MJ: No. They were very sweet: I'd told them when I'm acting, people will often say, "Will you cook something for us?" and I'll say, "No, I'm here as an actress."
SI: Later on, were there any regrets about not lending a hand?
MJ: When I saw the film, I did say, "What did you do in that scene with the green spices? There's no such green spice in that dish." And they said, "Oh, we just added it because it made it a vivid color." And I said, "But it's so unreal! You can't do that in a film that's about FOOD."
SI: It's part of your legend that when you moved from Delhi to London you didn't know how to cook at all. And that you - much like Samir, the young sous chef in "Today's Special" - discovered yourself through learning to make Indian food.
MJ: That's right. [laughs] I mean, I knew how the food should taste. I had palate instincts or whatever you want to call it.
SI: But you didn't know how to make even the most basic things for yourself like rice or tea, right?
MJ: That's right. Day to day food was generally cooked by the servants. So I was just used to everything coming out perfect from the kitchen. No soggy rice would pass muster. I learned the basics from my mother who sent me recipes in air letters. I asked for two vegetable dishes - a potato and a cauliflower dish. Then I asked for a meat dish that was cooked with a very limited amount of spices that my mother often talked about. What a simple dish it was. She'd write, "Put a little bit of this and a little bit of that." But that "little bit," that's what could be called instincts or palate. That you perfect it by tasting it. Then I worked out the exact proportions. I think my cook books sell well because I work out everything in terms of cups and measurement before I send the book out. "This is how much rice you will need if you cook by this method." I follow that to this day. I always say "A good cup of tea, a good bowl of rice, a good egg are not easy to do."
SI: What's the first sign of badly prepared tea?
MJ: The bane of my existence is tea made with tepid water or water that has not been brought to a full boil. It just kills the tea, doesn't bring out the flavor. I make tea the old-fashioned British way: You put the kettle on. Once the water is boiling you warm up the teapot. Even if I make my tea in a mug with a tea bag, I will warm the mug, then throw out that water, put the bag in, pour in the BOILING water, then cover the mug and let it steep for a few minutes. If it's a teapot you do exactly the same thing. I HATE cold tea. It has to be practically boiling hot when I drink it.
SI: What was it about London that made you interested in cooking?
MJ: I was homesick for authentic real flavors of Indian food. Things that used asafetida, fenugreek, spices you associate with home. Not this homogenized food that most restaurants served at that time.
SI: What about in south London? You couldn't go nuts in Tooting?
MJ: There was no Tooting when I got there. There were three or four general homogenized restaurants in Leicester Square. There was Veeraswamy's and a couple others. They all changed so dramatically in the sixties and seventies and in the eighties. We had good restaurants.
SI: Your first television series "Indian Cookery" really piqued interest in Indian cuisine when it aired on BBC2 in 1982.