Madhur Jaffrey on her food writing legacy, big birthdays and washing up

It’s 40 years since the actor and cookery writer introduced a whole generation to wonderful, foolproof Indian food with her classic book Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery (and the accompanying BBC TV series). In her 91st year – and on the publication of a special anniversary edition, with new recipes and illustrations – Madhur talks about learning to be true to herself and the significance of the first thing she ever tasted.

Madhur Jaffrey on her food writing legacy, big birthdays and washing up
Portrait: Lisa Levart

What are some of your earliest food memories?

When I was born my grandmother wrote the symbol for Om on my tongue in honey. I think it gave me a taste for all kinds of food and woke up my palate in a wonderful way – I was told I was licking my lips and wanted more. My father named me Madhur, meaning sweet as honey, because of this.

At my school there were girls from different states, religions and regions. The combination of place, religion and family makes a lot of difference in India because you don’t grow up with the same food. When we opened our tiffin carriers for lunch, we shared the different tastes. We call it ‘at the hand’: how it’s cooked, how it’s prepared. It was very precious to me, trying another family’s hand.

What spurred you to begin writing about food?

When I came to London to become an actor in the 1950s, I missed every dish from home. From the game to the simple vegetarian dishes my grandmother cooked, I missed the particular way food was prepared and how it was done in our house.

I didn’t know how to cook at all back then. At home we had cooks so, although my mother supervised, she didn’t cook either. But she knew how it was prepared, how the spices couldn’t be raw, how they had to be browned – and she’d send me three-line recipes.

Madhur’s mother taught her the importance of cooking spices with care


How do you feel about your status as a influential food writer today?

I never thought of myself as an influential food writer. Even when the book came out and was successful, I thought of myself as an actor. But I took writing the recipes seriously because I wanted the readers to be successful in the kitchen. I learnt how to write recipes in full, because otherwise British people would be lost without the proper directions. I would say: when you’re browning the onions, don’t think you can stir them once or twice and it’s done. It might take 12 minutes. I wanted it to be as though I was standing behind the person reading the recipe.

How has your work as an actor impacted your life?

I try to be as true as I can be as an actress. I had a wonderful voice teacher who would make us stand with our backs to the wall and drain our mind of all thoughts, until wind was blowing through our heads. “Now talk to me,” she would say; “tell me the most painful thing that has happened to you.” My voice came out entirely differently, like it was coming from the pit of my stomach. I recounted things that had been really hard for me in a voice and manner that seemed so true. That’s how I learned to act. And those skills helped me when I was presenting my first cookery programme.

What do you enjoy cooking at home?

I do cook every day. I cook Italian, French, Vietnamese, Korean, but I cook fewer dishes now because I get tired. I don’t enjoy cleaning up. I do it, but I’d rather somebody else did it.

Madhur cooks a variety of cuisines, including Korean dishes – such as this bibimbap

"When I was born, my grandmother wrote the symbol for Om on my tongue in honey... I was told I was licking my lips and wanted more. I was named Madhur – sweet as honey – because of this”

What do you do to unwind?

My garden is my pleasure. I can’t take care of it myself now, but I love my vegetables, my flowers, the blueberries and raspberries. I’m a big reader but for me getting older has meant I have problems with my eyes so I can’t really read now. It’s sad. I get help or listen to audiobooks.

How did you mark your 90th birthday this year?

We had an intimate gathering of the very dear people to me. It was immediate family and six good friends. We set out the table on the patio, with flowers and herbs growing all around us, and celebrated. One of my daughters ordered a lemony Gujarati cake that I like very much. My kids and everyone who was there had wonderful things to say. It was special.

What do you like to cook for a celebration?

A wonderful celebratory recipe in the book is salmon in a green Sindhi sauce – my friend gave me the recipe and it’s one of the tastiest sauces I’ve ever made. But sometimes even simple food like a moong dal can be welcoming and delicious. This year the Christmas festivities will be at one of my kids’ houses and they will cook – maybe a roast, Indian food or Mexican, whatever the family decides. And champagne – we all enjoy that very much!

Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery (£20 Bloomsbury) is out now; illustrations © Emma Dibben.

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