The chef, author and actress, whose children’s book, “Seasons of Splendour,” was reissued this month, refuses to be boxed in.
Madhur Jaffrey, shown here at her home in Hillsdale, New York, continues to publish recipes and articles, appear on podcasts, give interviews and speak in documentaries — even rapping in a music video with the artist Mr. Cardamom.Credit…Adrianna Newell for The New York Times
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Madhur Jaffrey — the Indian cookbook author, writer and actress — had never heard of the term “multi-hyphenate,” a word commonly used by celebrities to describe their synchronous professions, but she agreed it was an apt description for her own talents.
“That, and the original Spice Girl!” she said with a smile, recalling how her celebrity status as an Indian cook on British television in the 1980s earned her the same moniker as the popular British girl group.
At 89, Ms. Jaffrey shows no signs of slowing down. She continues to publish recipes and articles, appear on podcasts, give interviews and speak in documentaries — even rapping in a music video with the artist Mr. Cardamom. She is perhaps best known for introducing Indian food to the West, unapologetically educating people about the cuisine’s vast regional differences and complexities. Her first cookbook, “An Invitation to Indian Cooking,” will be reissued next year by Alfred A. Knopf on its 50th anniversary. This month, her 1985 children’s book, “Seasons of Splendour: Tales, Myths and Legends of India,” with illustrations by the acclaimed British children’s book artist Michael Foreman, is being republished in hardcover by the New York Review Books. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award given by the Indian government.
“I haven’t given you anything particularly Indian today,” Ms. Jaffrey said, warming a chicken biryani in her kitchen in Hillsdale, New York, the small town upstate where she and her husband, the violinist Sanford Allen, live most of the year when not at their Manhattan apartment. They purchased the property, which is decorated with artwork and antiques that they have acquired from their many travels abroad, in 1983. “It’s how I eat. I eat a mixture of everything,” she added, nodding to the two side dishes, one made of smoked eggplant, the other a cucumber salad with the last of Ms. Jaffrey’s summer tomatoes, that sat on the white countertop.
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.” Ms. Jaffrey had garnered praise and attention for her role in the 1965 Merchant Ivory film “Shakespeare Wallah,” playing Manjula, a jilted Bollywood film star. Her beauty and quicksilver temperament captivated viewers, and she took home the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, upsetting the producer’s expectations for the film’s lead, Felicity Kendal, to win the prize.
“You play your part for yourself,” Ms. Jaffrey said matter-of-factly. “You are the main character for yourself. To me, I was the most important character.”
At the time, Ms. Jaffrey considered herself an amateur, if passionate, cook. Her main profession was acting, having caught the bug when she was 5 years old (she played the mouse in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” for a school play, and recalled enjoying hot chocolate during the intermission) in her native Delhi. By the time she was enrolled in the University of Delhi in the early 1950s, she was seriously acting and eventually joined a repertory company founded by the actor Saeed Jaffrey (who would become her first husband) before earning a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1955. It was there that Ms. Jaffrey taught herself to cook from recipes her mother had sent from India, improvising with substitutes when original Indian vegetables were unavailable or making adjustments to account for matters of regional taste, such as using canned tomatoes instead of fresh ones. Cooking the dishes of her childhood was a way to manage her homesickness and avoid the less-than-mediocre English food at the drama school canteen.
Of her aspirations of stardom during her acting days, she said, “I thought I could handle any role.”
But when Ms. Jaffrey moved to America in 1957, she discovered Hollywood wasn’t interested in casting an Indian actress to play a leading lady and was routinely typecast, she said.
“I guess that’s racism,” she said. “What role were they going to give me? When I was young, I was cast as Middle Eastern, as hula girls. Then, as I got older, it became scientists and doctors and it stayed doctors for awhile. Then it became terrorist mothers. I wasn’t given a role where I could do anything and just be an actress until much later.” More recently, she has enjoyed appearing in HBO’s “And Just Like That…” as well as the NBC show “I Feel Bad” in 2018.
“Intellectually and physically, in terms of her own beauty, she was very much an individual,” the director and writer James Ivory, 94, recalled, who worked with Ms. Jaffrey on a number of films after the success of “Shakespeare Wallah.” “And movies don’t go for individuals. They want a type. She really wasn’t that type.”
“It did feel unfair,” Ms. Jaffey said. “It made me very angry. But I was not going to stop and just be angry. I was going to do what I was going to do.”
By 1966, Ms. Jaffrey was divorced from Mr. Jaffrey and had three young children to provide for. To pay the bills, she took on freelance writing and taught cooking classes. “It was difficult, but we made it work,” she said of juggling parenthood with her professional commitments alongside Mr. Allen, whom she married in 1967. She published the first of several dozen cookbooks beginning in 1973. When the BBC asked if she would be interested in hosting an Indian cooking show, Ms. Jaffrey sent in an audition tape. “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery” premiered in 1982. The series on the BBC was so popular that Ms. Jaffrey remembered being told that the city of Manchester, England, ran out of cilantro after she used it in a recipe with chicken.
“It gave me another career. I was doing my films, but they weren’t many,” she said. “The cooking work was bringing me much more money obviously, but I still counted myself to be an actor. I believed I was acting the part of a cook.”
Yet, even if that were the case, Ms. Jaffrey’s influence on the culinary world was profound. To the uninitiated, she made Indian cuisine — and culture — accessible.
“I consider her one of my great mentors,” said Alice Waters, 78, the chef and founder of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. “She has a way of speaking to you that is demystifying. There’s something very straightforward about her recipes. It feels like you can do it. And I just loved her aesthetic about food. The way she always connected everything to the seasons, to the place, the beauty of the dishes, the big picture of where she was from.”
For the desi diaspora, the importance of seeing an Indian woman on television, cooking food in a straightforward manner just like Julia Child, was groundbreaking. She continued to appear on BBC well into the next decade, flying to London each time to tape. She said customs agents at Heathrow airport would ask her what she was planning to make for dinner that night.
“We obviously always relate her achievements to the culinary world, but we don’t think about how many lives she has affected on a larger scale,” said Chintan Pandya, 42, the chef at New York’s Dhamaka who was named the best chef in New York state this year by the James Beard Awards. “She inspired an entire generation of Indians. She planted the seed. Say you walk down a road and see a huge tree that gives you shade, food, flowers, and you go, ‘Wow, this tree is so beautiful.’”
Food — as it often is with outsiders — was also a way for Ms. Jaffrey to discuss history, politics and more. Her writing revealed a tendency for scrupulous, time-consuming research. When discussing, for example, the spread of Indian cuisine around the world after the English formally abolished slavery in 1834 and turned to indentured labor from India, Ms. Jaffrey was able to recall during this interview the lyrics of a 19th-century boat song by kidnapped Indians from Kolkata that she discovered in a book about Mauritius. One Gourmet magazine assignment to the Philippines resulted in an encounter with Imelda Marcos, who shared with Ms. Jaffrey that Ms. Marcos liked to cook bananas flambe for her husband, former president Ferdinand Marcos. Ms. Jaffrey’s other cookbooks — including “From Curry to Kebabs” and “World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking” — are meticulously reported tomes that reveal the way food and history are forever intertwined.
When it came to writing her book “Seasons of Splendour,” Ms. Jaffrey — who had made New York her home since the 1960s — was aware of how the traditions of her childhood in Delhi would be forever lost with the passing of a generation. She was one of six children born to a Hindu businessman and a homemaker, raised in a sprawling compound that included a large extended family. In the early 1980s, Ms. Jaffrey returned to India to interview her remaining elders, with the intention of recording the myths and legends that they told in a dramatic fashion during the Indian holidays and festivals. She soon realized that without more personal context, the stories would be hard for non-Indian readers to understand, so she wrote introductions for many of the myths and legends with more personal memories from her own life. “The stories that we were told were designed not only to separate right from wrong but to prepare us, indirectly, for the vagaries of life and the fact of death,” wrote Ms. Jaffrey. The result is a unique and vividly personal children’s book.
“In my family, we are a great bunch of storytellers,” Ms. Jaffrey said. “Any excuse is good enough.
“As an illustrator, I was aware of what a huge responsibility this project was,” Mr. Foreman, the illustrator, wrote in an email. “To convey the stories, which Madhur’s father had told her as a child, and to respect the fact that these tales belonged to Indian culture, weighed on my mind. We went to Madhur’s family home and then traveled to the high mountain villages of Kashmir where we were welcomed into people’s homes.”
“Her cookbook editor, Judith Jones, wrote in her memoir how Madhur was interested in preserving her past by celebrating the cooking of her childhood,” said Susan Barba, a senior editor at the New York Review Books. “And that’s the same thing that she’s doing in ‘Seasons of Splendor,’ preserving that heritage through the recording of these stories.”
Ms. Jaffrey can count many other accomplishments. She is a proud grandmother of three grandchildren. “Everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing,” she said. She published a memoir, “Climbing the Mango Trees,” in 2005. She has drawn the illustrations for several of her cookbooks, even reimagining the logo of the book publisher Knopf of the leaping borzoi in her own hand. She remains something of a culinary style icon, with her Kantha-quilted jackets from Paris, Arche ballet flats and kohl-rimmed eyes, though these days, she prefers to use eyeliner “because my eyes aren’t what they used to be,” she said. She is mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary in order to better understand the words “neato” and “pep.” She is a committed plants person, having designed her Hillsdale garden, which features several garden beds filled with blueberries, tomatillos, winter melons, three varieties of kale and more.
She also has a cheeky sense of humor. The recent death of Queen Elizabeth led to a discussion of the Kohinoor diamond, famously 105.6 carats, which is said to have been taken from India, and is currently set in the front of the Queen’s crown. “The Kohinoor! Our Kohinoor!” exclaimed Ms. Jaffrey. “I’ve made so many films in my mind of me — me! — stealing it back for India!”
It appears that whatever Ms. Jaffrey’s original ambitions were and whatever obstacles she encountered, her success was entirely her own.
When asked what she would like her legacy to be, she simply said, “Whatever it is will do.”
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