The Actress, The Chef and Madhur Jaffrey

“ I was hijacked into the world of food without any planning,” says Madhur Jaffrey. The world famous cookery writer is in Bangalore, collecting material for her next cookbook, watching women from diverse communities create traditional vegetarian dishes in their own kitchens. The petite and elegant author is tireless in her pursuit of flavours. Pen poised, she takes notes, makes small sketches, stirs, tastes, checks textures with her fingers and asks many, detailed questions. She often has the same dish prepared by several different people, to capture its nuances. It is the wealth of such first hand experiences, distilled into every single recipe, that she offers her readers. As she absorbs the new flavours and tastes, she is already mentally addressing her readers and their reactions to the recipes. How can she make it possible for them to create the taste without too many exotic, difficult to source ingredients? What would be a good substitute for Coorg bitter oranges? Or wild greens? Watching her at work is to understand the process of writing and cooking that she later describes.

To find out how the acclaimed actress – Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust, Autobiography of a Princess, Cotton Mary – came to write more than 15 cookbooks, several of them award –winning, and became a world authority on Indian food, one has to begin with a homesick young drama student inLondon of the late 1950’s, where the parallel careers began. As someone who had grown up in a large, extended family in Delhi, where good food was taken for granted, and woven into the events of life, she found herself suddenly faced with ‘ a lack of deliciousness’ in London. She yearned for the tastes of home, and quickly embarked on long – distance cookery classes with her mother, the instructions arriving via air -mail letters. She soon found that all the early family feasts, picnics and hunts had resolved themselves into taste memories, and she would write later: “… each bite, each taste that I had catalogued in some pristine file (was) ready to be drawn up when the moment was ripe.” In England, she says, these tastes gave rise to desires and a craving for flavours that soon had her cooking for herself,drawing on these memories. By the 1960’s she was known as ‘the actress who could cook.’A 1966 article in the New York Times, to promote the film Shakespeare Wallah brought her a book contract – An Invitation to Indian Cookery, her first cookbook, and a James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame Award Winner, still in print, like the majority of her books; it was entirely about the food she knew intimately, the food of Delhi, the food of her family. In New York, she taught in the kitchen of James Beard, neighbour and friend, and her own, to promote the book; but it was a B.B.C. television series that made her world famous as a cookery expert, andher achievements in cooking and acting would become so entwined that, the honorary C.B.E awarded to her would acknowledge her contributions to film, television and cookery.

Her approach to food and cooking is both inspired, and immensely practical. The perfectionist in her will replicate a taste, recalling, contrasting, grading and finally re-creating. She says she would like her readers to feel that someone is standing beside them, guiding them through the recipe, something that she feels comes from being entirely self- taught.

She likens her sensitivity to taste and flavours to her husband’s ear for music. A recipe, for her, has to be correct, so she will test it repeatedly, cooking the same thing over and over again, until she is able to achieve the results that are closest to what she has tasted halfway across the world,an attention to detail that has earned her an enviable reputation as a chef.

Sanford Allen, who was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is quietly humourousabout being referred to as Madhur Jaffrey’s husband. He is deeply supportive of her work, photographing, offering suggestions, tasting and testing beside her, and kindly lending what Madhur refers to as his ‘violin arm’ to some of the heavy work in the kitchen – it is a rare and beautiful relationship. At their home in upstate New York, they grow vegetables and fruits, seasonal produce that is enjoyed at its peak, and then blanched and frozen, to be enjoyed through the rest of the year. Cooking everyday and eating at home is what they love best, exploring diverse world cuisines – but when it comes to entertaining, “Indian is expected”, says Madhur Jaffrey, laughing.

Personally, she explains, it is never the dish by itself that interests her, but everything around it. The best part, for her, is the research, which takes her far afield. For instance, she read the travels of Ibn Batuta, not because it was required, but it inspired her. In many ways, she has been like an explorer – the world she knew, she says, was a very limited one, so, from the food of the Delhithat she knew, motivated by a love of new things, the excitement of not knowing where you would find a new idea, or recipe, she set out across the country into regional cuisines, and cuisines across the world, bringing the same passion and interest to everything she researched.In Penang, she found Muslim women cooking a shrimp dish with black pepper, keeping to a time period before red chilies, which had vanished in India; in Mauritius, the food of the indentured plantation labour carried a stamp of their journey on boats, and their history.This background makes Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Bible one of the most beautifully researched and fascinating books on the subject, replete with food history, prints, maps and almost forgotten stories of how food travelled.As a traveller and researcher, she is very adventurous, eating all manner of weird and wonderful foods in distant parts of the world, led by her curiosity for all things related to food, and, as she says, she never gives up in the pursuit of something that interests her.

In many ways, she has been well ahead of the times, popularizing and promoting Indian food when it was completely unknown, bringing attractive food styling and an imaginative use of colour and design to her books, tracking down rare prints and artifacts from museums across the world, to use as illustrations. Sheintroduced a fusion of east-west flavours long before its current popularity, and anticipated changes in lifestyle, writing a book like Curry Easy, which loses nothing in taste while simplifying the way classic dishes can be prepared. Her latest book, Curry Nation, explores the influence of Indian food on Britain.

“I never thought about the impact my books would have,” says Madhur Jaffrey, “instead, learning and writing about food became a cause.” And to this, she brought her own enthusiasm and dedication that would inspire millions of home cooks and readers. At the Bangalore International Centre, the auditorium is packed to capacity to hear her speak on ‘How An Actress Became A Foodie.’ One grateful woman had come just to thank her for the books that had taught her how to cook when she married and went to live overseas, a novice in the kitchen, with no extended family to turn to. Her experience sounded remarkably like that of the young drama student all those years ago, who went on to write cookbooks that changed peoples lives –how many kitchen across the world, I wondered, have a Madhur Jaffrey on their shelves they rely on? Madhur Jaffrey has often referred to herself as ‘an actress playing the part of a chef’ – she has brought together the two roles, brilliantly, in the performance of a lifetime.

A Selection of Books by Madhur Jaffrey

  • An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973) James Beard Foundation Awards Cookbook

Hall of Fame Winner

  • Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking (1981) James Beard

Foundation Award Winner

  • A Taste of India (1986)
  • A Taste of the Far East (1993) James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year
  • Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavours of India. (1995)
  • Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking (1996)
  • Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian (1999) James Beard Foundation Award Winner
  • Madhur Jaffrey’s Step – by – Step Indian Cooking (2001) James Beard Foundation

Award Winner

  • Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible (2003) James Beard Foundation Award


  • At Home With Madhur Jaffrey (2010)
  • Curry Easy (2010)
  • Curry Nation (2012)

The Actress, The Chef and Madhur Jaffrey appeared in UpperCrust magazine in the 1st Quarter, January – March 2013.

Image Courtesy: Farzana Behram Contractor & UpperCrust Magazine


Kaveri Ponnapa

Kaveri Ponnapa is a widely published independent writer on food, wine and heritage, based in Bengaluru. Her features appear in leading publications. She graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.