In the first part of our conversation with Madhur Jaffrey, the Delhi-born legendary actress, award-winning cookbook author and Indian cuisine authority spoke to us about her latest movie, a foodie comedy in which she plays a peppily invasive mom called Today's Special, about how she learned to cook by following the hand-written recipes her mother sent to her in London via airmail, and that the Indian spice asafetida is actually a powerful de-gassing agent when combined with beans.
In the second part, Jaffrey, 77, kicks things off with an anecdote about the famous producing-directing team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory and the former's love of using his dinner guests as temporary secretaries. Check back later today for her recipe for Chicken Thighs with Vindaloo Spices. Jaffrey recently made it on Martha Stewart. Martha even liked it. And what Martha says goes.
Squid Ink: In “At Home With…” you tell a great story about how Ismail Merchant, one-half of the filmmaking team of Merchant-Ivory, who made “Shakespeare Wallah,” — which you starred in — “A Room With a View” and “Howards End,” and who you've been credited with pairing. You say Merchant was one of those people who could make a lovely dinner out of anything. Can you elaborate?
Madhur Jaffrey:[laughs] We would arrive. Very often there was a purpose to our coming, like to collate manuscripts. But he wouldn't tell us that.
SI: Pardon? Did you say that he'd invite you over for dinner and then ask you to collate manuscripts?
MJ: Yes! We'd be the labor. He'd say, “Oh, I just have to run out to get some things for dinner. Here are the pages that need to be collated.” And there'd be, like, four of us and we'd be on the floor collating this stuff. Then he'd run out and get very basic things like fish or meat and dal. He'd have nothing. Then he'd come back very quickly and start cooking while we were collating and it would be simple, but delicious. He had what we say in India, a “good hand.” He knew how to put enough of the right things in the food so it tasted good. He'd make the same things again and again and again.
He made a daal. He made a wonderful shrimp with halved cherry tomatoes. It was delicious. And he would make rice and a salad. As we went on, he started baking fish, a whole fish he'd put in the oven and just throw some spices over it and set it to bake. His mother always sent him a wonderful huge jar of mango pickles and that would always be there on the table as well. So it was to supplement whatever else might be missing in the food. But the whole meal was always delicious.
SI: I'm not sure I would ever attempt an Ismail Merchant “dine-and-collate” dinner party. But I love the idea of serving simple, delicious food to friends. What's a quick, foolproof recipe in your new cookbook?
MJ: There's a vindaloo, like in every restaurant. With a vindaloo there are spices you roast and grind, you have to soak this, soak that. I cut it down. Mainly it's vinegar – which is the “vin” part – and garlic. You need those. You also need black peppercorns. But instead of roasting and grinding them, I very simply throw them into hot oil. Then I add a few more spices. Then I cook chicken thighs in it. It takes twenty minutes from start to finish. It's tart and vinegary and as hot as you want it. I was on the Martha Stewart show yesterday and I did the Vindaloo Chicken. We both ate it at the end. I'd forgotten how simple and wonderful it was.
SI: Let's move on to beverages. Do you serve cold Kingfisher premium lager? Or wine?
MJ: I NEVER serve beer. If your food is of great quality, you can serve a very good French wine or a shiraz from Australia or an Argentinian wine. Even Bordeauxs. It depends on the quality of what you're cooking. If you're doing a whole leg of lamb in the Indian way, go ahead and serve a great red. In England, when the curry houses spread out everywhere and were very cheap and the food was bad quality and poorly cooked all the students ate it and drank a lot of beer with it. The association of cheap Indian food and beer is so lodged in my head that I can't shake it out. [laughs] But if any of my son-in-laws want beer, I definitely have it.
SI: Do you have any memories of your mother in the kitchen when you were growing up in Delhi?
MJ:For special festivals and picnics, the women of the house would prepare special dishes for religious festivals. So I watched those and help [my mother]. For example, at the festival we just had – Diwali, the festival of lights – there's a special flat papadum type thing called Papri that she would make with chickpea flour. You have to make a very, very hard roll with chickpea flour and oil then roll it out and deep fry it. It's almost as thin as a papadum and quite delicious. She'd also make a stuffed, a sweet filling called Gooja that is also served at Divali and you put all kinds of nuts and sugar and things like that. The ends are like a samosa where you turn the ends. But it's more in the shape of a turnover. And that is deep-fried. She would make things like that.
On a picnic, if you read my memoirs, I talk about my grandmother and the ladies of the house making all of the dishes for the picnic. Special potatoes with ginger and tomatoes and pooris, little round puffed breads. That would be done by the women of the house. And there was lots of pickling. The servants would be maybe grinding the spices. But the actual putting together of the pickle would be done by the women of the house. And we made dried dumpling, dried in the sun, so you could reconstitute them and could them with eggplant and things.
SI: Was it odd or amusing for your family to have you leave Delhi as a stranger to cooking and then see you become a food superstar?
MJ: My father never understood that and he never understood about me being an actress. My father said really until the end, “It's a hobby.” [laughs] Once I heard my father tell the president of India, who was a friend of his, “Her acting is a hobby.” At the time I was being honored by the entire country for my acting and it was so wonderful and he was still saying the same thing. “It's a hobby.” He just couldn't' think of it as anything serious. He wanted me to go into the foreign service and end up an ambassador.
SI: Okay, Ambassador Jaffrey, here's another question: There are lots of things served at mainstream Chinese restaurants that were invented in the U.S., not China. Is there an Indian equivalent of, say, General Tso's Chicken?
MJ: Yes. Chicken Tikka Masala. We all feel that it started in Birmingham. When you make Tandoori food, in India there are two things you can do with it. You can serve it fresh or one thing they'd do in India was take the chicken pieces, cut it into pieces and put it in a butter and tomato sauce. We all absolutely loved that. That's pretty authentic. But Chicken Tikka Masala is when you stick cubes of chicken onto a skewer and cook them in the tandoor. Then sometimes they sit around because nobody's bought them. So what do you do? In a cheap restaurant, they'll make a very quick sauce with all the Indian spices – garlic, ginger, coriander, lots of tomatoes – and stir it around in a wok or an Indian karhai and then put the cooked chicken in and heat it up. That became a very popular dish in England. When we first opened our restaurant in New York, Dawat, they wanted to offer Chicken Tikka Masala and I said [with horror in her voice] “No WAY!” But I had no control over the matter. I think it eventually crept onto the menu. It's sort of become Indian food. But by way of Birmingham.
SI: I noticed you have another book coming out in England right now called “Curry Easy.” Just how many plates are you able to spin?
MJ: [laughs] It's the same book as “At Home With Madhur Jaffrey” — it just has a different title and different pictures. But another film of mine came out in August called “Hiding Divya.” I played a woman with various mental conditions. [laughs] A book and two films. That's enough for me.