Meet Madhur Jaffrey – an award-winning actress, cookbook author and the host of TV cooking shows that helped demystify Indian cooking. Born in British India, Jaffrey went to London to study acting and relocated to the USA in the late 1950s. She currently lives in New York with her family.
When Jaffrey moved to England she had no inkling on how to cook. A craving for Indian food prompted her tentative culinary journey in her English kitchen. She started off by making a simple dish of potatoes with asafoetida and cumin with the help of her mother’s cooking instructions sent via Air Mail. Soon, Jaffrey improved her culinary skills and became fluent in the kitchen. She cooks every day and her favorite meal is dal, chawal or rice and lentil soup.
LISTEN: MADHUR JAFFREY ON FOOD MEMORIES AND DELHI
A few years ago I got an opportunity to talk to Jaffrey about her memoir “Climbing the Mango Trees.” During the course of our conversation we spoke about her taste memories from India, her extended family and Dehi. Taste memories is something she discussed while working with James Beard, a well-known food writer and chef. Beard like Jaffrey was an actor, who branched off into cooking.
What were Jaffrey’s taste memories growing up in Kanpur and Delhi? She remembers her mother’s large kitchen garden in Kanpur and the abundance of tomatoes that grew there. She fondly recollect her mother serving them fresh tomato juice with salt and cumin. The smell of basmati rice wafting from the kitchen signaled lunch was getting ready. Andt he smell of simple moong dal. “This was soul food for us” Jaffrey says. In winters the family kitchen served various kinds of meat that were redolent with various spices. Besides Indian dishes, there was toast with Rumble Tumble omelete with green chillies and cilantro.
Jaffrey’s family is from old Delhi and she spent many summers with her extended family in the city. She has fond taste memories of going to Chandni Chowk’s Paranthewali gali famous for its paranthe or paratha, a type of Indian stuffed bread. This was one of her mother’s favorite place. Although her maternal grandfather frowned on eating at Paranthewali gali, their mother would take them to the place for a treat. The only instruction their mother gave was “Don’t drink the water.”
One of the biggest changss came to Delhi after 1947, when Indian became an independent country. When India was partitioned there was an infusion of people from Western Punjab and Northwest frontier says Jaffrey. The Punjabis came with bright ideas of opening restaurants. They came like a breath of fresh air and introduced their cuisine of nan, tandoori, paneer and kali (black) dal she adds. Moti Mahal opened in Chandini Chowk during this time and it became synonymous with Indian food says Jaffrey. Within a span of 60 years Delhi and its culinary landscape has changed quite a lot when compared to her childhood days says Jaffrey.
I wondered on what were some of the surprising and unexpected things she remembers when she looks back at her life. The partition was an unexpected turn, her own travels and studying in England and coming to America.