By Harihar Swarup
Madhur Jaffrey, 89, insists she’s is not actually a cook; just an actor playing the part. She was never trained as a chef, doesn’t chop her onions evenly, only cooks what a homemaker would for her family. (What she did study, she points out, is acting: she spent years on TV, writing, acting and presenting).
Yet, this year, she became the first person of South Asian origin to win the prestigious James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. This comes year after the Government of India awarded her the Padma Bhushan, the country’s third –highest civilian honour.
“They are both pinnacles to my career, and I feel very honoured”, Jaffrey says. “I have been working steadily, so it’s nice to be recognized. Not that I was looking for it. But it feels really warm and wonderful to know that other people are watching and listening”.
People have been watching and listening for a while now. Jaffrey is credited with teaching the West how to cook Indian food. Over 50 years she has published dozens of cook books. Many, including her first. An invitation to Indian cooking (1973), have been best sellers. They are known and loved for the depth of details in the recipes, and the historical context woven into the notes on the dishes and ingredients, which themselves represents the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent.
Jaffrey had rich career in television too, presenting Indian food to a British audience at a time at a time, when the later, despite hundreds of years of colonial rule, still describe this country’s complex tapestry of cuisines with the single word “curry”. Jaffrey’s BBC shows— which included the popular Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian cookery; 1982 and Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India; 1995 – broke new ground. It was rare to see a mainstream TV show about this cuisine, and even rarer to see one hosted by an Indian.
It helped that she was already famous to a degree, Jaffrey got her big break in the 1965 Merchant–Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah. As an actor, she is still best known for her role as the envy-ridden Bollywood star Manjula, for which she won a Silver Bear for the best actress at the Berlin International Film Festival that year.
A year before that big break, a divorce from actor Saeed Jaffrey had left her with three children to care for. There was little money to be made from the limited roles available for an Indian actress, so Jaffrey began to write about food and travel and began to conduct cooking classes, to supplement her income.
She married the violinist Sanford Allen in 1967 (they remain happily married), but the passion for food held. It allowed her to be a “one woman band”, she says. “I do everything myself. I shop. I cook. I clean up, I write. I clear up. I edit. I travel, and I love it. I never accept any help because I don’t trust people to do it as well as I can”. (IPA Service)