Madhur Jaffrey on Indian Cooking

Madhur Jaffrey is not an early riser. I discover this at the end of our interview, which was on a Sunday morning at 9.30am. Not only is she not an early riser, she was up until five in the morning working on recipes. Yet, when we chat on the phone she is bright and cheery and incredibly interesting.

They say you should never meet your heroes, or in this case, don’t yak to them on the phone, but I don’t go along with that. For me, the surprise is always that they sound just like you would expect them to sound, and invariably, they are nicer in person. Madhur Jaffrey, as you can see, is an incredibly polite person. I am sure, that with just 40 winks of sleep, she didn’t feel in the least bit like a ‘phoner’, but I would never have guessed.

“I have no routine. My days are weird; it depends on the pressure of work. When things have to get done, I can stay up and do them,” she says. She chats about her cookbook Curry Nation. “The word ‘curry’ is not in common usage in most of India. It is used when talking to foreigners, it can be found on some menus and you do, now and then, find city folk using it when referring to a wet, sauced meat or fish dish,” says Jaffrey. Although we may have started out with curry powder when we first started using the word, Jaffrey has noticed a huge change in the way people in the west eat over the last 30 years. “People are cooking more and more Indian food. Also, there are many more regional restaurants serving foods from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Punjab, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It is wonderful to see the variety that is now available.”

Regionality plays a huge part in Indian food, and Jaffrey who has written over 15 cookery books, has written two on that topic – A Taste of India and Flavours of India. “You really have to think of India as you do Europe. Each region has its own cuisine. The only thing all regions have in common is the magical use of spices,” says Jaffrey.

Ground Spices Smell of Sawdust

But when it comes to spices, home cooks may not always be getting the best results. “I tell people to go home and open up their little jar of coriander powder and just smell it and taste it, and then take whole, dried coriander seeds that have not been ground, and grind them fresh and smell the two,” she says. “One is like smelling sawdust and the other is like smelling heaven, because it’s so aromatic, and the taste is different and the aroma is different if you do it fresh. because all the oils either get rancid or they fade away and dry out when you grind them.”

Jaffrey emphasises that it’s not necessary to have any special equipment to cook Indian food and regular utensils will suffice. For the pantry, she recommends jars of dried whole and split beans, rice and wheat flour which are essential to all Indian meals. “Just as a painter needs his paint-box of colours, an Indian cook needs his box of spices,” she says. “What the box contains partly depends upon the area he is from. But, generally speaking, cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilli powder, black pepper, mustard seeds, cumin seeds and whole red dried chillies would be the essential dry spices; and onions, ginger, garlic, green chillies, green coriander and curry leaves are essential fresh seasonings.”

Travels to Find New Foods and Dishes

Jaffrey, who splits her time between Manhattan and her house in upstate New York, travels to India every year and has just returned from a recent trip to specifically examine the foods of one state, Andhra Pradesh. “I was also looking generally at vegetarian foods in Karnataka,” she says. “My next book for Ebury is on Easy Indian vegetarian cookery. One of the things I’m looking at is how communities eat, for example jewellers. What kind of foods they eat. This was my first research trip back to India working on this. I was staying at the Taj Hotel, which is a grand old hotel in Bombay and I saw shops that I’d been going to since I was a little kid, and one of them was a jewellery shop. And I just decided that I would go to all those old shops that I’d been going to, just to see what people eat. One is an old silk shop, one is a jewellery shop. And I followed through several jewellers, and saw what they brought to the shop and ate there and then I went to their homes and saw what they ate there and I recorded all this and I think it’s going to be very interesting. I am going to look at various groups of people throughout India, people who work, farmers, what they bring to the farm. I went to a chilli farm in the south of India, and peered inside the food containers of all the people working in the fields. So, it’s just how Indians eat. On trains, on planes, on the farms, if you are making jewellery for the richest movie stars of the world. What are these people eating? It is really so interesting to see what’s in the little tiffin carriers of everyone.”

Vegetarian Food Becoming Mainstream

Jaffrey has noticed an increasing interest in eating vegetarian food. “There’s nobody that sees more of it than I do, because all around me, there are people and they’re not from Asia, they’re westerners that are converting to vegan and vegetarian and sometimes they’re doing it for health reasons,” she says. “I was just with friends yesterday who have all become vegan, and they were having Fergus Henderson, the chef at the very meaty nose-to-tail London restaurant, St John, cook for them. He cooked a wonderful, basically vegetarian private meal for the birthday of a mutual American friend. He did throw in a steak as the guests were mixed but there were many, many American vegetarians present. That is how people are eating today. I see it everywhere. Certainly in America there are so many examples. President Clinton is a good example. He saved his life by changing his diet. And so, it has become fascinating to people and they are doing it for a variety of reasons.”

Although she is considered to be the foremost authority on Indian food, Jaffrey, who trained at RADA in London, also has an award winning career as an actor. She has appeared in more than 20 films, including Merchant Ivory’s Heat and Dust. “I’m in several films that are showing currently. One is called a Late Quartet. It’s a quartet of musicians and I play the part of a doctor,” she says.”It’s got wonderful actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken. it’s a lovely film. I like to think that I’m an actor who cooks.”

“I have no training in cookery nor did I ever dream of or want to specialise in cookery,” she says. “It just happened. I was in America looking for acting work and could not find any, so I started writing for magazines and newspapers. I was asked to do an article on the foods I ate as a child, one thing led to another, and soon I was writing a cookery book.”

So what does the actress who likes to cook rustle up when she’s at home? “In many ways my cooking has become simpler but also more diverse,” she says. “My ‘favourite’ dish keeps changing. At the moment it is a pancake made from mung beans that I just learnt in Andhra Pradesh. I like serving several courses and they vary according to my mood and the season. The food is nearly always Indian only because people expect it. Sometimes I do a chicken Mughlai with raisins and almonds, sometimes salmon cooked in an Indian sauce. I could do a biryani if guests know what it is. My deserts are usually western but with Indian flavours.”

And what advice would she give to people cooking Indian food? “Just follow a good recipe.”

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