HomeLuxuryThe indeterminate roles of Madhur Jaffrey

The indeterminate roles of Madhur Jaffrey

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The Indian cookbook author, writer, and actor Madhur Jaffrey had never heard of the term “multi-hyphenate,” which celebrities use to describe their several careers, but she thought it fit her.
“That, and the first Spice Girl!” she smiled, recalling her 1980s fame as an Indian cook on British television.
Ms. Jaffrey, 89, keeps going. She publishes recipes, articles, podcasts, interviews, and documentaries; she even raps in a music video with Mr. Cardamom. She is arguably most recognized for introducing Indian food to the West, unabashedly informing people about the cuisine’s numerous regional distinctions and intricacies. Alfred A. Knopf will reissue her debut cookbook, “An Invitation to Indian Cooking,” next year for its 50th anniversary. “Seasons of Splendor: Tales, Myths, and Legends of India,” illustrated by Michael Foreman, is being reprinted in hardback by New York Review Books this month. She received India’s third-highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan, this year.
“I haven’t offered you anything Indian today,” Ms. Jaffrey said, warming a chicken biryani in her kitchen in Hillsdale, New York, the little hamlet upstate where she and her husband, musician Sanford Allen, live most of the year when not in Manhattan. In 1983, they bought the property, which is filled with artwork and antiques from their travels. It’s my diet. She continued, “I eat a mixture of everything,” pointing to the two side dishes on the white countertop: smoked eggplant and a cucumber salad with Ms. Jaffrey’s last summer tomatoes.
In 1966, when The New York Times first profiled Ms. Jaffrey, the headline for the piece written by the former restaurant critic Craig Claiborne read, “Indian Actress Is a Star in the Kitchen, Too.” In the 1965 Merchant Ivory film “Shakespeare Wallah,” Ms. Jaffrey played Bollywood actress Manjula. She won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, surprising the producer, who expected Felicity Kendal to win.
“You play your part for yourself,” Ms. Jaffrey stated. “You are your protagonist.” “I was the most significant character.”
Ms. Jaffrey was a devoted amateur cook at the time. After playing the mouse in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” for a school play in Delhi at age 5, she became an actress. By the time she was enrolled in the University of Delhi in the early 1950s, she was seriously acting and joined a repertory company founded by actor Saeed Jaffrey (who would become her first husband) before receiving a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1955. Ms. Jaffrey trained herself to cook from recipes her mother had received from India, inventing alternatives when Indian veggies were unavailable or adjusting for regional flavors, such as using canned tomatoes instead of fresh ones. Cooking her childhood favorites helped her overcome homesickness and avoid the canteen’s subpar English food.
She said, “I thought I could handle any role.”
Ms. Jaffrey said she was typecast in Hollywood after moving to America in 1957.
“Racism,” she said. “What role were they going to give me?” When I was young, I was cast as Middle Eastern, as a hula girl. Later, it was scientists and doctors. Then came terrorist mothers. “I wasn’t offered a job where I could do anything and just be an actress until much later.” She enjoyed appearing in HBO’s “And Just Like That” and NBC’s “I Feel Bad” in 2018.
“Intellectually and physically, in terms of her attractiveness, she was very much an individual,” the director and writer James Ivory, 94, recalled. He worked with Ms. Jaffrey on many films after the success of “Shakespeare Wallah.” Movies aren’t for people. They want a type. She wasn’t like that.
Ms. Jaffey said it felt unfair. I was furious. But I was not going to stop and just be upset. “I would do my thing.”
By 1966, Ms. Jaffrey was divorced and was supporting three young children. She wrote and taught cooking to make money. “It was difficult, but we made it work,” she recalled of her 1967 marriage to Mr. Allen and balancing parenthood and work. She authored the first of several dozen cookbooks beginning in 1973. When the BBC asked whether she would be interested in hosting an Indian food show, Ms. Jaffrey sent in an audition film. “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery” debuted in 1982. The BBC series was so popular that Ms. Jaffrey was told Manchester, England, ran out of cilantro after she used it in a chicken meal.
I got another job. “I made a few flicks,” she remarked. I was still an actor, but cooking paid better. “I thought I was cooking.”
Even so, Ms. Jaffrey had a huge impact on the culinary world. To the uninitiated, she made Indian cuisine and culture so accessible.
“I consider her one of my great mentors,” said Alice Waters, 78, the chef and creator of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. She demystifies with her words. She cooks simply. It feels doable. And I absolutely adored her aesthetic regarding eating. “The way she always tied everything to the seasons, region, beauty of the meals, and the larger picture of where she was from.”
For the desi diaspora, seeing an Indian woman cook like Julia Child on TV was revolutionary. She flew to London each time to tape for the BBC for the next decade. She stated that customs inspectors at Heathrow airport would ask her what she was intending to make for supper that night.
“We obviously usually tie her achievements to the culinary world, but we don’t think about how many lives she has influenced on a bigger scale,” said Chintan Pandya, 42, the chef at New York’s Dhamaka who was voted the best chef in New York State this year by the James Beard Awards. She influenced a generation of Indians. She sowed. Say you travel down a road and see a gigantic tree that gives you shade, food, and flowers, and you go, “Wow, this tree is so beautiful.”
Food—as it often does with outsiders—was also a chance for Ms. Jaffrey to discuss history, politics, and more. She meticulously researched her writing. In this interview, Ms. Jaffrey recalled the lyrics of a 19th-century boat song by kidnapped Indians from Kolkata that she found in a book about Mauritius when discussing the spread of Indian cuisine around the world after the English abolished slavery in 1834 and turned to indentured labor from India. Imelda Marcos told Ms. Jaffrey that she preferred to cook bananas flambe for her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, during a Gourmet magazine assignment in the Philippines. Ms. Jaffrey’s earlier volumes, notably “From Curry to Kebabs” and “World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking,” are carefully documented tomes that demonstrate the way food and history are forever entwined.
When it came to writing her book “Seasons of Splendor,” Ms. Jaffrey, who had made New York her home since the 1960s, was conscious of how the traditions of her youth in Delhi would be irrevocably lost with the passing of a generation. She was one of six children born to a Hindu businessman and a homemaker, living in a spacious complex that included a big extended family. Ms. Jaffrey traveled to India in the early 1980s to interview her elders and document their dramatic stories and legends from Indian holidays and festivals. She knew that non-Indian readers would struggle to grasp the stories without more personal context, so she wrote introductions for many of the myths and legends based on her own life experiences. Ms. Jaffrey wrote that the stories we were told were meant to teach us right from wrong and indirectly prepare us for life and death. The book is distinctive and profoundly personal.
“My family tells fantastic stories,” Ms. Jaffrey added. Any excuse works. “As an illustrator, I was aware of what a great responsibility this project was,” Mr. Foreman noted in an email. I worried about telling Madhur’s father’s childhood stories and respecting Indian culture. “We went to Madhur’s family house and then traveled to the high mountain villages of Kashmir, where we were welcomed into people’s homes.”
According to New York Review Books senior editor Susan Barba, Madhur wanted to preserve her heritage by appreciating her childhood food. “In ‘Seasons of Splendor,’ she’s conserving that history by capturing these stories.”
Ms. Jaffrey has a long list of accomplishments. Three grandchildren make her proud. “Everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing,” she stated. “Climbing the Mango Trees” was her 2005 memoir. She has drawn the pictures for several of her cookbooks, even reinventing the logo of the book publisher Knopf—the leaping borzoi—in her hand. She still wears Parisian Kantha-quilted jackets, Arche ballerina flats, and kohl-rimmed eyes, but she now uses eyeliner
“Since my eyes aren’t what they used to be.” The Oxford English Dictionary uses her to define “neato” and “pep.” Her Hillsdale garden includes blueberries, tomatillos, winter melons, three types of kale, and more.
She’s cheeky too. After Queen Elizabeth’s death, the Kohinoor diamond, a 105.6-carat Indian diamond set in the Queen’s crown, was discussed. “Our Kohinoor!” screamed Ms. Jaffrey. “I’ve made so many films in my imagination of me—me!—stealing it back for India!”
Ms. Jaffrey’s success seems to have been her own, no matter what her goals were or how hard things were for her.
“Whatever it is, it will do,” she replied when questioned about her legacy.

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