When Madhur Jaffrey arrived at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, she was a Delhi-born 19-year-old from a wealthy family and so accustomed to being waited on that even the most rudimentary cooking skills eluded her. In the end, it was her inability to find authentic Indian food in 1950s England that made her go DIY and start trying to make her favorite dishes herself. Over more than a dozen cookbooks later (six of them James Beard award winners), the 77-year-old Jaffrey has often been credited as one of the key reasons why the Western world is so familiar with curries, biryanis and vindaloos. In the land of movies, however, particularly indie films, she is known as an award-winning actress.
This month, her two hemispheres overlap: She has a new cookbook out called At Home With Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in the film Today's Special, written by and starring Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show), Jaffrey plays a loving, traditionalist mother trying to push her chef son into an arranged marriage. In this two-part interview, Jaffrey explains to Squid Ink such matters as why asafetida is an essential part of Indian cooking, how producer-director Ismail Merchant could get his dinner guests to multi-task, and why her recipe for chicken thighs is the perfect entry-level dish for newbie cooks.
Squid Ink: Indian food is so prevalent in “Today's Special” that the movie is being called a “tandoori comedy.” Did that kind of attention to cuisine make its way into the on-set catering?
Madhur Jaffrey: We were filming in Jackson Heights.
SI: The Little India of Queens!
MJ: Most of the time we got absolutely great local Indian food. Sometimes we'd get salads because we'd worry that the crew might tire of it. But then we'd go back to getting the local food or eating at the local kabob house next door. In Jackson Heights there's all kinds of diners and not the grandest of restaurants, but cheap, good, neighborhood places doing south Indian food, Gujarati food, Pakistani food. It was great for me. I used to do all my shopping there, there'd be all the spices and every odd vegetable that is used in Indian cooking and can't find in Manhattan. I'd go home with bags of groceries. [laughs]
SI: “Today's Special” was made on a shoestring budget. Were you ever asked to double as food stylist?
MJ: No. They were very sweet: I'd told them when I'm acting, people will often say, “Will you cook something for us?” and I'll say, “No, I'm here as an actress.”
SI: Later on, were there any regrets about not lending a hand?
MJ: When I saw the film, I did say, “What did you do in that scene with the green spices? There's no such green spice in that dish.” And they said, “Oh, we just added it because it made it a vivid color.” And I said, “But it's so unreal! You can't do that in a film that's about FOOD.”
SI: It's part of your legend that when you moved from Delhi to London you didn't know how to cook at all. And that you – much like Samir, the young sous chef in “Today's Special” – discovered yourself through learning to make Indian food.
MJ: That's right. [laughs] I mean, I knew how the food should taste. I had palate instincts or whatever you want to call it.
SI: But you didn't know how to make even the most basic things for yourself like rice or tea, right?
MJ: That's right. Day to day food was generally cooked by the servants. So I was just used to everything coming out perfect from the kitchen. No soggy rice would pass muster. I learned the basics from my mother who sent me recipes in air letters. I asked for two vegetable dishes – a potato and a cauliflower dish. Then I asked for a meat dish that was cooked with a very limited amount of spices that my mother often talked about. What a simple dish it was. She'd write, “Put a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” But that “little bit,” that's what could be called instincts or palate. That you perfect it by tasting it. Then I worked out the exact proportions. I think my cook books sell well because I work out everything in terms of cups and measurement before I send the book out. “This is how much rice you will need if you cook by this method.” I follow that to this day. I always say “A good cup of tea, a good bowl of rice, a good egg are not easy to do.”
SI: What's the first sign of badly prepared tea?
MJ: The bane of my existence is tea made with tepid water or water that has not been brought to a full boil. It just kills the tea, doesn't bring out the flavor. I make tea the old-fashioned British way: You put the kettle on. Once the water is boiling you warm up the teapot. Even if I make my tea in a mug with a tea bag, I will warm the mug, then throw out that water, put the bag in, pour in the BOILING water, then cover the mug and let it steep for a few minutes. If it's a teapot you do exactly the same thing. I HATE cold tea. It has to be practically boiling hot when I drink it.
SI: What was it about London that made you interested in cooking?
MJ: I was homesick for authentic real flavors of Indian food. Things that used asafetida, fenugreek, spices you associate with home. Not this homogenized food that most restaurants served at that time.
SI: What about in south London? You couldn't go nuts in Tooting?
MJ: There was no Tooting when I got there. There were three or four general homogenized restaurants in Leicester Square. There was Veeraswamy's and a couple others. They all changed so dramatically in the sixties and seventies and in the eighties. We had good restaurants.
SI: Your first television series “Indian Cookery” really piqued interest in Indian cuisine when it aired on BBC2 in 1982.
MJ: It was done as an educational series. They didn't expect anything like the reaction they got. I'd done a couple of books before that which got good reviews, but modest sales. Television changes everything. The book – it was called “Indian Cooking” over here — sold out before the series barely started. It's still selling. It just sells and sells.
SI: I have a friend who swears by your book, Invitation to Indian Cooking. He says your recipe for biryani is better than anything you can get at a restaurant because it's so labor intensive.
MJ: [laughs] My new book, At Home With Madhur Jaffrey, is a reaction to that, to so many people telling me that Indian cooking is labor intensive. I say, “It isn't. It depends on what dishes you make.” Whatever part of India that you go to, you will find dishes that are quick and easy.
MJ: I've been working on a technique that simplifies the more complicated meat dishes. I don't know how much Indian cooking you do, but a meat curry takes time.You have to brown the onion, garlic, ginger, brown the spices and brown the meat. The whole process takes about 45 minutes. Over the years, I've discovered that there are other ways. These are ways that Indians would have discovered had every home had a fridge and oven. But they didn't. So they used whatever they had and the methods they had. Given that we do have the fridge and oven, I put all the spices on the meat and marinate it over night. The next day, I take it out and let it come to room temperature then put it in the oven. Then the top browns and you turn it over and the bottom browns and then you cover it – and you can add a little liquid if you want – and then you just bake it. There you have a curry and it takes all that effort out of it and you still get the authentic taste. In a way, I've tried to go to the essence, the heart of Indian food, the basic real taste.
SI: Did you take into consideration the dozens of different spices that people may not have in their kitchens, or be able to find easily?
MJ: When I was working on this, I thought, “Should I cut down on spices so people don't have to buy, like, forty different kinds?” I decided that I would cut down on some of them. For example, black cardamom isn't necessary when green cardamom will do. But other spices I would not take away, the medicinal ones. The medicinal part is so integrated into our cooking. We don't talk about it; but we all know about it. Our grandmother talked about it, your great-grandmother, everybody. They'd say, “Oh, this is wrong with you? Well then I'll do this.” Or “I'll put this spice on you” or “I'll make an herbal tea of this kind.” I thought, “I'm not going to talk about it. But the medicinal value will be there.” So when you eat the food from this book, you will just feel better.
SI: Give me an example of a medicinal spice.
MJ: Asafetida. People can barely pronounce it, but it has tremendous medicinal value. It's a digestive. It's always used with beans, for example.
SI: So we're talking about something that works in the digestive tracts to break down complex sugars into simple sugars and keeps one from being anti-social, gastrointestinally speaking.
MJ: Yes! It works like Beano. It's a gum, a resin that oozes from a tree in Afghanistan and is collected in lumps. My mother always had a very pure piece of asafetida and she'd break off a little bit. Now you can get it all ground up. It has a funky smell that I always compare to something between truffles and garlic. The funkiness vanishes once you put it in hot oil and you're left with a lovely, lovely dark taste. It smells very Indian and authentic.
SI: As long as we're on the subject of healing spices, what does turmeric do?
MJ: Turmeric, which gives that yellow color to Indian food, is a true antiseptic. I just saw a whole bunch of Indian films at a film festival and there was a scene where a woman's husband gets a gash on his forehead and she treats it with a dab of turmeric. That's quite common in India. Turmeric is considered an antiseptic outside and inside the body. If you eat food with turmeric in it, your innards will get cleansed.
Check back later for the second part of this interview, in which Jaffrey discusses Ismail Merchant, making pooris with Mom, and gives a recipe for her chicken vindaloo (which turned out really great on the Martha Stewart show).