Published On: Mon, Nov 27th, 2023

At 90, Madhur Jaffrey relishes her role as a groundbreaking food writer

At 90, Madhur Jaffrey relishes her role as a groundbreaking food writer
At 90, Madhur Jaffrey relishes her role as a groundbreaking food writer

Madhur Jaffrey at her home in Hillsdale, N.Y. (Angus Mordant for The Washington Post)

In the late 1960s, Madhur Jaffrey’s career was at an impasse. She had come to America the previous decade armed with a prestigious acting degree from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and she’d even managed to win a glimmering Best Actress trophy from the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965.

But such bona fides were not enough. Parts for an Indian actress like her were rooted in derogation: Think “harem girls and things like that,” she told me one day this fall, sitting in her house in Hillsdale, a hamlet in New York. “Rubbishy, rubbishy roles.”

A divorce left her with three daughters to support. When the magazine Holiday asked her to write an article recalling the food she’d eaten as a child in India, the country where she was born in 1933, she said yes. She needed the money.

That piece would set Jaffrey on the path toward writing 1973’s “An Invitation to Indian Cooking,” reissued this month by Knopf in observance of its 50th anniversary. That cookbook announced the arrival of a culinary star, and Jaffrey’s subsequent cookbooks — she has authored more than 20 — have burnished her reputation as America’s most cherished envoy for Indian cooking. The James Beard Foundation has decorated her with nine medals, most recently this year with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Abroad, Britain festooned her in 2004 with the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) title, the nation’s second-highest order behind knighthood or damehood. The Indian government garlanded her with one of its highest civilian honors, the Padma Bhushan, in 2022.

But you’d be mistaken if you were to perceive Jaffrey, now 90, primarily as a cookbook author. “I’m an actress,” she stated matter-of-factly. “And I do parts. One of the parts is playing a food writer.”

Her rose began blooming early: Jaffrey’s first role was as a brown mouse in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” when she was a 5-year-old in the North Indian city of Kanpur, where her father operated a ghee factory. Moviegoing became a regular activity for her upper-class family through the unease of World War II. She sought to emulate the career of Marlon Brando.

Jaffrey inched closer to that dream in 1955, when a scholarship airlifted her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). She sought jailbreak from a corner of Indian society where men “ruled the roost,” as she put it. “And I think I rebelled against that very early in life, and I said, ‘Somewhere, I’m going to find a place where I can be myself,’” Jaffrey said.

But the jaundiced slop served at the RADA canteen, she said, was “very dreadful,” indicative of the dreary condition of postwar British cuisine. Jaffrey began to pine for bowls of potatoes cooked with the glorious funk of asafetida, hissing cumin seeds and a tickle of dried red peppers — dishes like the kind her mother, Kashmiran Rani, used to cook.

Her mother, a homemaker who spoke no English, mailed her three-line recipes in Hindi with sparse instructions: A little of this masala. A little of that masala. Brown it. At first, the vagueness scared Jaffrey, who believed she had no cooking aptitude. She was wrong. She realized that she could fill in the blanks by drawing on her taste memories: Her palate had been recording this knowledge all along.

Jaffrey’s fluency as a cook served her well when, a decade later in New York, she found herself countenancing the indignities of a stagnating acting career. Casting directors criticized her for her genteel accent, which she’d picked up in drama school; it seemed incongruent with their preconception of how an Indian woman should sound. “Nobody wanted me,” she said.

But she often showcased her culinary talents as the doyenne of dinner parties in Manhattan, putting her in front of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor whose 1966 piece on her, “Indian Actress Is a Star in the Kitchen, Too,” reoriented her career. Such publicity, along with her article for Holiday, resulted in entreaties to write an Indian cookbook. She heeded the call.

The time was ripe. In 1965, a watershed immigration law, the Hart-Celler Act, ushered in a new wave of educated professionals and students from India to America. The Indian musician Ravi Shankar became an icon of the counterculture thanks to his association with the Beatles. But stereotypes still loomed large: “The Party” (1968) featured the English comedic genius Peter Sellers bobbing his head in brownface to play a bumbling Indian immigrant.

This limited imagination, too, infected perception of India’s food. Americans seemed to believe that all Indian food was “curry, curry, curry,” as Jaffrey put it to me. Prior cookbooks like Santha Rama Rau’s “The Cooking of India” (1969) did not meaningfully correct that distortion.

Jaffrey spent five years working on her manuscript, then titled “Curry: Myth and Reality,” before drama ensued: Her commissioning editor went silent on her. The publishing house she sent her book to dissolved, leaving her opus orphaned.

With the help of friends in the publishing world, Jaffrey’s draft landed in the hands of the perspicacious Knopf editor Judith Jones in 1971. Jones had published 1961’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” co-authored by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle; the book was an unexpected blockbuster, and its success put Jones at the forefront of the country’s culinary cognoscenti.

“Judith was impressed with Jaffrey’s ability to translate a cuisine entirely foreign to most Americans at the time via detailed instruction, the richness of her knowledge, and the essential warmth and approachability evoked by her style of prose,” Sara B. Franklin, author of a forthcoming biography of Jones, “The Editor” (2024), wrote in an email. Because Jaffrey’s entry into cooking had begun, like Child’s, in adulthood, she “understood the importance of clear instruction for amateur home cooks who may never have encountered a particular ingredient or technique included in their recipes before,” Franklin added.

“An Invitation to Indian Cooking” appeared on American shelves in spring 1973. It was a time when cookbooks by Italy’s Marcella Hazan and Egypt’s Claudia Roden were also capturing the hearts of home cooks across America, reflecting the country’s more curious palate.

Jaffrey admitted that hers was a “small cookbook,” quilting together recipes from her own family in North India and in-laws from other parts of South Asia, such as Gujarat and Bengal. “It didn’t go through all of India, at all,” she said of her book’s ambitions. “It didn’t try to. It just said what I knew and that was in the book.”

Despite its now-incontestable reputation as a classic, “Invitation” was no immediate sales juggernaut. Jones suggested Jaffrey goose up interest by teaching cooking classes, roping in James Beard, who lived blocks away from Jaffrey, to assist. Through this, the book found its people. Her initial audience was the same that the Hart-Celler Act welcomed into America: “There were Indian students, lots of Indian students, who wanted to make kheema and dal and rice and didn’t know how to go about it,” she said.

Slowly, the book’s reach widened. American students started picking it up. Those students had children; those children later had children of their own. She still gets letters telling her what the book has meant to them and their families, even people stopping her in the street wherever she goes in the world.

Seeing Jaffrey host the BBC program “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery” (1982) four decades ago was nothing short of “groundbreaking,” said the British Indian cookbook author and Guardian columnist Meera Sodha. Sodha’s parents had come to the United Kingdom in the 1970s and been asked to close their windows while cooking. But Jaffrey’s presence on television, Sodha said, dignified Indian cooking as “something to be celebrated.”

Jaffrey has admirably, to Sodha’s mind, made a career of sliding freely between artistic practices. “She is one of life’s true creatives,” Sodha said. “She moved from film to food and taught me that if you follow your passion and put the work in you can, if you wish, get out of your swim lane.”

Jaffrey, though, is firm in her insistence that acting is her life’s calling. She still acts, notably as Seema’s mother on Max’s “And Just Like That …” in 2022, but she spends most of her days writing. Jaffrey has jettisoned plans for another memoir. (Her first, an account of her childhood, was published in 2006.) She doesn’t want to dredge up any old ghosts. “Life got too messy,” she said. “I don’t want to expose everyone, that messiness.”

Jaffrey is still mildly flummoxed by the devotion her first cookbook continues to inspire. “I have no idea,” she confessed, honestly, when I asked her why this book endures. Fifty years on, Jaffrey isn’t convinced that America’s view of Indian cooking has changed in a meaningful way. Sure, American food magazines may pay lip service by printing Hindi cooking words, she said. But there’s a dimension — a soul — missing, she feels, in the superficial adoption of global flavors under the umbrella of American food. “Because how can you get the emotions of each country into the food?” she said. “You have to live it in a way.”

This may explain, then, why “An Invitation to Indian Cooking” has stood the test of time: Jaffrey writes from emotion. She lived the story she tells in that book.

Jaffrey has made peace with the reality that some projects she is working on now may go unfinished. “Well, I’m 90 years old,” she sighed. “I just have to try and keep living a bit.”

Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers (2021) and a forthcoming biography of the actress Merle Oberon.

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