Thirty years ago, an Indian actor called Madhur Jaffrey used her skills to ‘sell the part’ as a TV chef, and soon became the face of Indian cookery in Britain. As she launches a new series and book, Jonathan Trew asks her for her recipe for success
MADHUR JAFFREY was born in India, and has lived for the past 50 years in the United States, but she will always be associated with Britain. Through her books and television shows, the 79-year-old has shaped the UK’s tastes. If chicken tikka masala is the nation’s favourite dish, then Madhur Jaffrey, the country’s best-known Indian chef, is the one who made that dish’s popularity possible.
She has a Rada-trained RP accent matched with the sort of straight-backed reserve more normally seen in old war films where people talk of ‘Blighty’, and curses very politely by paraphrasing Shakespeare. During our interview, with her TV producer in the room, one question deemed particularly impertinent leads to her wish that he and I should endure a “pox on both your houses”. As Jamie Oliver, her favourite TV chef, might put it, she is “proper pukka”.
On the day of our interview, Jaffrey has been up to her elbows in cumin at Punjab’n De Rasoi in Leith, filming the Sikh ladies who cook there for her new TV series, Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation. Thirty years after her debut BBC series, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, she is back on our screens looking at how South Asian cooking has developed in the UK during the intervening period.
From haggis pakora in Glasgow via Chinese chip shop curry in Leicester, the ten-part series examines the way that Indian cooking has evolved to reflect the different British communities who eat it. It is a cuisine that has travelled well, picks up influences from its surroundings and adapts easily; all characteristics which apply equally to Jaffrey.
An Indian woman brought up in Anglo-Indian society, a citizen of three continents and a trained Method actor who found fame through cooking, Jaffrey’s multifaceted identity is one she relishes. “What profession is on my passport? This is the big confusion of my life. When Oxford University was offering me an honorary doctorate, I asked what they were going to give it to me for. How do you combine acting and food as a degree? It was the same when they gave me the CBE. The CBE was for my contributions to the worlds of acting and cookery.”
“It sounds very funny,” she laughs. “I’ll take it but what is it?”
Jaffrey, née Bahadur, was born in Delhi to well connected and wealthy parents in 1933, who had held high administrative posts in both India’s pre-colonial and Raj governments. Her grandfather had been rewarded handsomely after backing the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 but that relationship was rather more ambivalent by the time that the young Madhur was growing up.
“We all felt very comfortable with the British. At the same time, we wanted them to get the heck out of India. Our family was with the Independence movement. I remember marching out of cinemas every time God Save the King was played. We would leave and then come back for the film. We were part of that but without animosity. It was just, ‘Get out! This is our country.’”
While British rule wasn’t popular in the Bahadur household, British culture was. Jaffrey studied English literature at Delhi University, a milieu which also encouraged her nascent interest in drama. It was an education that stood her in good stead when she applied for and won a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London at the age of 19. Post-Partition Delhi and post-war London were different worlds but Jaffrey was perfectly comfortable in both, thank you very much.
“The British educational system was such that they taught you everything about Britain,” she says. ‘I grew up with both Indian and British culture. I knew Indian history going back to 3000BC but I also knew British history to before 1066. We studied both. We did poetry from Chaucer onwards. One knew Shakespeare, one knew the modern writers. We saw all the British films, all the American films and all the Indian films. When I came to Britain, everything was very familiar.”
Moving to London at the age of 19 was not really the done thing for young Indian women in the 1950s, especially if you were going to study something as dubious as acting rather than something useful like engineering or medicine. However, Jaffrey’s family was supportive even if she did hear her father explain to the Indian president at the time that acting “was just her hobby”.
A self-confessed tomboy when she was a girl, Jaffrey was not going to let other people’s expectations dictate her actions as she started out in adult life. The move to London represented freedom as well as a chance to pursue her acting ambitions.
“I was a woman in a man’s country. You were always someone’s daughter or someone’s sister. That was how you were known. I didn’t want to be ‘so-and-so’s sister’. I began to get extremely irritated because I was a woman and there were so many things stopping women from doing this, that and the next thing. At college and then at Rada, things did change and I could do what I wanted.”
While today the name Madhur Jaffrey is inextricably linked with Indian cooking, it is not something that the budding actor in her early twenties would have predicted. At the family home in Delhi, staff had prepared most meals, with the women of the family only playing a part on high days and holy days. Hungry for home-style Indian cooking in London, but completely ignorant of how to prepare it, Jaffrey’s first real forays into the kitchen began when she wrote to her mother for recipes, that she would then prepare on a hot ring in her Brent bedsit.
Her food writing career didn’t start until, after graduating, she moved to New York. She had gone there to further her acting, and married fellow actor Saeed Jaffrey with whom she had three daughters. To smooth out the unpredictable income of an acting career, Madhur had fallen into writing food articles. This was a new string to her bow, which came about after she penned a piece on Indian cooking in the New York Times in order to promote Shakespeare Wallah, her first major film role in 1965. As was often the case in Jaffrey’s life, her role in the film was a round hole and she was the square peg.
“For Shakespeare Wallah, I played an Indian movie star but I didn’t look like the average Indian movie star. I was skinny, wore glasses and wasn’t a voluptuous, hourglass sort of woman.
“I remember arriving and I could see the Indian crew, looking incredulous, and thinking ‘She’s playing an Indian movie star?’ In my mind, I was thinking, ‘I’ll show you. I can do it.’”
Jaffrey was right. The Merchant Ivory film was a critical and commercial success and won her a Best Actress award at the Berlin film Festival. Nearly half a century later, Jaffrey still makes films. A Late Quartet, due out in 2013, and featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken is her most recent. As to the cooking, Jaffrey is the first to say that her culinary career has been a happy accident: “My mother would be laughing in her grave – me being known for cooking”. If she wasn’t the most knowledgeable gastronome when she wrote her first piece for the New York Times, Jaffrey soon learned. She reckons that travel and researching articles taught her a lot while her acting skills – what she calls knowing “how to sell the part” of the TV chef – boosted her broadcast career, as did being in the right time at the right place.
Millions of book sales and dozens of TV shows later, Jaffrey doesn’t need to worry about her food writing credentials nor her acting career. She may still not know exactly what profession ought to be listed on her passport, but her life so far has been full and there is no sign of her hanging up her apron anytime soon.
She shares a Greenwich Village apartment and a country house in upstate New York with Sanford Allen, her second husband. Although a keen gardener in her country home, Jaffrey doesn’t want to spend too long smelling the flowers. A further book and possible TV series are scheduled after this one.
“I literally do take time to smell the flowers but putting your feet up is so boring,” she says. “You have to do the things you love. Feet up is good but feet down is good too.”
• Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation is on Good Food, Sundays to Thursdays at 9pm from 4 November (Sky / HD 247, Virgin 260).
• Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation book is out now on Ebury Press, £20
THREE OTHER TV FOOD TRAILBLAZERS
Along with her seemingly long-suffering husband Johnnie, Fanny Cradock was the haughty face of BBC post-war cooking shows. Although her recipes were apparently well adapted to the economical needs of her viewers, her habit of cooking in a ball gown did little to endear her to many. These days, her memory is kept alive by much schoolboy sniggering at the persistent rumour that Johnnie once signed off a show with the immortal line “May all your doughnuts turn out like Fanny’s”.
First appearing on the telly in the 1970s, Delia Smith was the first British TV chef to become so well known that she had no need of a surname. “No nonsense” is the label usually applied to the cooking of the Norwich City FC majority shareholder. While she may lack the Michelin glamour; foxy allure or everyman charm of later TV chefs, she is still the bestseller they all want to knock off her perch.
A man for whom the term bon viveur could have been coined, Floyd was as famous for his fondness for the bottle as his winning ways with a flambéed duck breast. His colourful life story meant he was often in the papers for the wrong reasons but, compared to many of today’s more sanitised celeb chefs, he was a genuinely engaging presenter.
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