With a Padma Bhushan now added to her accolades, Madhur Jaffrey continues to cruise in the culinary world at 88
What is it about Madhur Jaffrey that sets her leagues apart as an icon in the culinary world? Is it the title as First Lady of Global Indian Cuisine bestowed upon her by fans? Is it being conferred with the honour Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004 by the Queen?
Actually, it’s all of these things and much more. Most recently, President Ram Nath Kovind bestowed upon her the Padma Bhushan for her contributions to the culinary arts. This in itself is monumental, for she won it specifically in the category ‘Others – Culinary’. Which is a small, but significant step up since Tarla Dalal won her Padma Shri in simply the Others category in 2007.
Even at the golden age of 88, Madhur Jaffrey continues to remain in the public eye both for her food and acting, ever the actor who can cook. She was most recently spotted in the ‘Sex and the City’ spinoff ‘And Just Like That’, as the mother of the Sarita Choudhury character, an Indian American New York realtor.
Her last literary venture wasn’t too far back either. Published in 2019, her book entitled Instantly Indian Cookbook was chalk full of recipes customized for the Instant Pot. As the world rapidly approached a pandemic, it proved extremely useful in terms of juggling food and remote working.
Born in August 1933, Jaffrey’s youth is known to have the occasional family indulgence in Mughlai cuisine. Post Partition, when refugees from Punjab settled in Delhi, she got introduced to Punjabi food and fell in love with its simplicity.
However, she wasn’t particularly adept in the kitchen herself. Her move to London at the age of 19 to study at RADA led to a deep void. A void that could only be filled by the comfort food from home. Jaffrey’s mother was quick to respond to her daughter’s call, sending across airmails with recipes of familiar dishes, beginning with the humble aloo jeera.
From there, it wasn’t much longer till the budding chef in her would go on to become a stalwart for Indian cuisine on a global scale. Her close association with Indian film producer and director Ismail Merchant led to a dinner with ‘New York Times’ food critic Craig Claiborne after some insistence on his part. According to media reports, Jaffrey borrowed “a friend’s home” for the meal that she served on that occasion. The result was a piece that put her on the path of food forever.
Post the article in 1966, she received a book contract from an independent editor to write a book on Indian cooking. For Jaffrey, this meant compiling all the recipes learnt by her through correspondence with her mother, to be adapted for the American kitchen. Due to a period of rapid consolidation in the American publishing industry, the book changed many hands before finally reaching Knopf editor Judith Jones.
At the time, she was popular for having championed Julia Child’s cookbook at a time when no other publisher would touch it. Here too, she took up the book immediately, only asking Jaffrey to add serving suggestions and menus for people not familiar with Indian cooking. According to Jones, Jaffrey was an ideal cookbook writer precisely because she had learned to cook childhood comfort food as an adult, and primarily from written instructions.
Thus came An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1973, Madhur Jaffrey’s first cookbook that cemented her position in Indian cuisine. The book went on to be inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006. From there it was only upward and onward for the legend, with over a dozen cookbooks, television programme appearances, and even the enviable position of food consultant at the now-closed Dawat (NYC) to her name. If that wasn’t enough, the resultant success also moved Jaffrey to develop a line of mass-marketed cooking sauces.
In one among many notable media interactions, Jaffrey says, “Indian food is far more evolved now internationally than it was. When I wrote my first book I had to leave out things like asafoetida because my publisher said no one would understand this. By the second book, I decided to stick up for what I thought was right, otherwise things would never change.”
The social historian Panikos Panayi has on occasion, described her as the doyen of Indian cookery writers, but noted that their and her influence remained limited to Indian cuisine. Panayi has also commented that despite Jaffrey’s description of “most Indian restaurants in Britain as ‘second-class establishments that had managed to underplay their own regional uniqueness'”, most of her dishes too “do not appear on dining tables in India”.
Whichever way you slice it though, Madhur Jaffrey’s mark in the culinary world, and her contribution to taking Indian cuisine to the western hemisphere far before the Internet age is indelible.