Attaining the highest level of accomplishment in any discipline is a difficult task. Achieving world renown in two different fields is almost unheard of, and yet Madhur Jaffrey has done so, in both film and food, breaking down barriers between cultures and cuisines for more than 50 years. She has been active since the inception of the modern culinary renaissance, teaching three generations of people around the world how to make South Asian cooking part of their regular repertoire. And she is beloved: Her writing is elegant, her recipes work, and her voice is without pretense or artifice. Petite and polite, with piercing dark eyes, at 78 she still has the regal features and poise that helped make her a movie star. And she’s working as hard as ever; she recently wrapped a film with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken (A Late Quartet) and is working on a new book.
She has a strong connection to the Hudson Valley. After settling in New York City in the late 1960s, Jaffrey and her husband, the violinist Sanford Allen, became acquainted with this region through their close friends James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. The legendary director-producer couple had a house in Claverack. “Years ago, they were out of town, so we borrowed their house for three months,” says Jaffrey. “It’s so lovely, this whole area, so we started looking around.” They eventually found an old house, built in the 1790s, in Columbia County. “It was too near the road, but we never found anything nicer. And since it had once been a tavern, it seemed right.”
Later, they bought the property next door and expanded the yard and gardens. She and Allen divide their time evenly between the city and country houses. The spacious interior is elegant yet homey, with each room painted or papered in a different saturated hue or pattern. The furniture is eclectic, including many periods and styles, and it harmonizes nicely with the many photographs, masks, statues, and other objects she has gathered in a lifetime of traveling the world. Jaffrey says she has no use for interior decorators, and the house makes that abundantly clear. It’s ready for its close-up in a much fancier magazine than this.
Outside, Jaffrey tends lots of flowers, a vegetable garden, and several patches of fruit (raspberries, blueberries, apples) and plans to add trellises of grapes and hardy kiwis next year. The exterior shows the same aesthetic as the interior: elegant and tidy, but with plenty of room for asymmetry and moments of lavish beauty. Each object or plant is afforded enough room to be appreciated; there’s no clutter inside or out. The garden is modest but filled with a wide variety of greens, beans, squash, tomatoes, and roots, with herbs tucked in between. She shows it off with obvious enthusiasm, saying: “I believe in getting things from the earth and cooking for yourself. It’s so easy to grow things.” The garden dictates her meals, which very often are not Indian: “Whatever is there, we use, regardless of what kind of food. Last night we had pasta with broccoli and globe zucchini from the garden.” Jaffrey mentions the zucchini several times, as well as parsnips and salsify, when discussing her favorites. (She either boils and dresses salsify like an artichoke or cuts the long roots into sections and roasts them until tender).
The back stone terrace boasts an array of potted peppers that the garden couldn’t accommodate. Jaffrey dries pepper seeds, brings them back from her travels, and plants them. A recent find is a habañero type that has all of the fruity perfume typical to the variety but without the fiery heat. Shiso is another favorite: “It’s great with cucumber. I get sushi sometimes with cucumber and ume and shiso and sesame, so I made a salad out of the same things, using a bit of ume paste in the dressing.” She freezes lots of thick tomato sauce for winter, and stores potatoes and onions in the cellar, though she expresses frustration that she can’t seem to keep them from sprouting prematurely. And she acknowledges that during the winter she doesn’t eat much local food, since her garden is bare.
Speaking more about her cooking style, Jaffrey says: “I’ll pick something and decide what to do with it because an idea strikes me, and of course every recipe started that way. Somebody put things together, and they worked, and it entered the repertoire.” She mostly cooks by feel, she says, though she does sometimes use cookbooks: “With Marcella [Hazan] or Julia [Child], initially I use the recipes. I’ll make it their way once, and then I might decide to change it some.” It’s fitting that she uses only their first names, since she belongs in their iconic company, having demystified Indian cooking for Americans as they did Italian and French.
Something Jaffrey lamented in her first book (An Introduction To Indian Cooking, 1973) was the sameness of Indian restaurants around the country; the menus were generic and did not represent the vast regional diversity of the subcontinent’s many cuisines. Today, she says, “It’s beginning to change, but only in big cities. Something is needed, something real. I have waited for this revolution, but it hasn’t happened yet.” Britain’s long history with India explains the huge popularity of the food in the UK, but “America as a whole has not embraced Indian food like they have with Chinese, or with sushi. It’s happening with some people, because my books do sell. But with Asian foods, I think many people prefer to go out to eat.” So she is still working to help people cook more South Asian food at home, emphasizing that an average meal isn’t complicated at all: “They have a rice or a bread, one or two vegetables, some yogurt, pickles or chutneys, maybe meat or dal. That will be it, not a hundred things. People would say ‘We love it, but it’s so complicated.’ That’s why I wrote the book [At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, 2010]. I tried to get the authentic taste but make it simpler.”
For anyone keen to take the plunge, Jaffrey recommends buying a small coffee grinder. She has a red one for spices—the one for her husband’s coffee is white—and says, “They don’t take up any space, and it just takes a minute to grind spices before cooking.” Custom grinding allows for infinite variations, and revelatory flavors: “Spices have oils that can become rancid after they’re ground. Something like coriander turns to sawdust so quickly.” Even curry powder, which Jaffrey gently maligns as something invented solely for export, still has its function: she uses a bit along with fresh-ground spices to make mulligatawny soup, which as an Anglo-Indian hybrid ironically requires that inauthentic flavor in order to be truly authentic. She offers another example of how the fake can become real over time: “Indians living in Japan yearn for that awful curry sauce they have there [it’s a popular flavor for ramen and snacks] and bring packets with them back to India or the UK.”
After over 30 books and six James Beard awards, Jaffrey explains the challenges that come with being identified so closely with one tradition. “I would be happy to write about Russian, Italian, or French food. But nobody will let me. I did not put myself in that pigeonhole. I was put in it. I have been fighting it forever.” This struggle parallels the difficulties throughout her acting career landing film or stage roles that fell outside of where people thought she belonged. “If I said I want to do an Italian book, [my publisher] would laugh at me. It is frustrating. But I’m an optimistic person, so I say ‘OK, if I can’t do that, what can I do?’” She won’t reveal the subject of the next book, saying only “I don’t like to bore myself. I had to find something new and different even though it’s the same old thing in some ways.” Her key is curiosity: “What can I do that will excite me, make me explore a new area? That’s what I look for. I love to learn, I love to travel, researching something new, finding new angles: How can I do this better, how do they do it?” After a pause, she corrects herself, smiling: “I don’t love traveling, but I love being places.”
Talking with Jaffrey for any length of time, one realizes that globalization is not a new notion; wars, invasions, and migrations have always shaped societies. Colonialism brought peoples together—usually disastrously—but it did result in all sorts of hybrid food and culture throughout the centuries. Jaffrey thinks it “utterly interesting” how ingredients and dishes have traveled and evolved through history. “I do find that people are doing things without realizing that they’re borrowing from someone else. Think of chili pepper: It’s from the New World, yet think how easily it’s used throughout South and Southeast Asia. Also, corn: people on an Indonesian island do a ‘native’ corn dance. I asked them where it comes from, they say, ‘We’ve always done it; our ancient ancestors did it.’ But of course, they didn’t have corn back then. It’s the same in Northwest India, where they eat cornbread, or in Northern Italy with polenta; they took the new ingredients and made them their own.”
The same hybridization is happening on different terms now, with more equality, but the result is the same. Culture and cuisine have always been mutable, though the curve of change has steepened dramatically in recent years. Jaffrey has no problem with innovation, but not just for its own sake. “Young cooks borrow eagerly, but often indiscriminately, I might add. In the hands of good chef with a good palate, anything is possible. But there are many not-so-good chefs. This means trouble; mixing ingredients doesn’t work if the palate is not there.” In general, she doesn’t love much of the cutting-edge cooking that’s so dominant right now: “I can’t say that I crave that food. My grandson is 19, and he is much more excited than I am. For a young person, these new frontiers are fascinating. For me, the proof is in the taste, and I haven’t eaten anything that has bowled me over. I like home food. I like the generosity, the simplicity. That’s where my heart is.”
Peter Barrett cooks Indian food and more and blogs about it at www.acookblog.com.
- Jennifer May