Food Arts presents the July/August 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Madhur Jaffrey, the exquisite Indian actress whose cookbooks and television programs awakened a Western public to the sub-continent’s culinary wonders. Today, with India the current hot spot on the fusion frontier, Jaffrey’s prescient, clear-voiced descriptions of a spice-driven cuisine need to be heeded more than ever.
Modestly, Jaffrey acknowledges that she “introduced the authentic flavors that made people want to go into the kitchen and cook Indian food.” Her reward, she says, comes from knowing that a “whole slew of young chefs have my books” and that her work carries the staying power and authority to speak to a second generation of cooks.
Jaffrey would be pleased to hear just how loudly her voice resonates. Rocco DiSpirito, for one, the young chef who’s defining fine dining’s next wave at Union Pacific in New York City, owns three of Jaffrey’s cookbooks and consults them often. “I like her as a credible source for Indian spice mixtures,” says DiSpirito, who recently worked one of Jaffrey’s mélanges into the honey/lime juice gastrique that glazed the roasted cauliflower he served with a roasted lamb loin.
Nothing about Jaffrey’s upbringing in a liberal, well-to-do, multi-generational household in Delhi was designed to lead her to the itinerant life of an actress. Or, for that matter, of a cooking authority. Her family had served as high-ranking officials in the courts of Moghul rulers since the 15th century. As would be expected, food—Moghul, Hindu, and British—and entertaining held great sway in her family’s home, especially when her patriarchal grandfather feted the many poets and musicians he patronized. But cooking was left to the help; Jaffrey’s enlightened father sent he rand a sister to boys’ schools to prepare for “serious” professions.
At first Jaffrey thought she’d like to be a doctor. Then a painter. But her parents insisted that she get a “proper B.A. to get a job,” so she acceded and chose to major in English literature at Miranda House, a college within Delhi University. Graduating with the highest grades and with many drama and debating prizes, Jaffrey first worked at All India Radio as an announcer while performing with the experimental English-language Unity Theater in Delhi. A performance in a Tennessee Williams play gained her a Government of India scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where she earned the rare Diploma with Honors.
In 1957, after two years in London, she answered an invitation to teach pantomime at St. Michael’s Playhouse in Winooski, Vermont. She then ventured to New York City, where she performed in Off-Broadway productions and short films, toured the United States as a lecturer on poetry, and met her husband, Sanford Allen, a violinist with the New York Philharmonic (they have three daughters). Her breakthrough came in the 1964 Merchant-Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah, in which her role as a temperamental movie star gained her a Silver Bear as best actress at the Berlin Film Festival and critical notice at the New York and London Film Festivals. She has continued to act in film (Heat and Dust, 1982; A Perfect Murder, 1987; Six Degrees of Separation, 1994), in theater (Medea, London, 1986; Two Rooms, New York City, 1993), and television (A Wanted Man, BBC, 1989; Peacock Spring, BBC, 1995). And has just completed shooting the film Chutney Popcorn, to be released this autumn.
“I feel my main profession is acting,” Jaffrey says. “That cooking has turned into a profession is a sweet little bonus.”
Jaffrey’s culinary journey started in London, where unable to afford restaurants, she took a virtual correspondence course from her mother on how to cook Indian food. By the ‘60’s, she had learned “the magic of Indian spices” and was asked by a freelance editor to write a cookbook. The manuscript eventually found its way to Judith Jones at Alfred A. Knopf, who brought it out as An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1973.
The rest, as they say, is culinary/literary history: 11 cookbooks—including Madhur Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1981) that presaged today’s pan-Asian fixation, and her favorite, A Taste of India (Athenueum, NY, 1985), a regional survey; television and radio shows; a line of sauces and chutneys; numerous magazine and newspaper articles; cooking classes (including James Beard’s townhouse school); and food consultant to Dawat, an acclaimed Indian restaurant in New York City. Her latest book, on international vegetarian cooking, is due next year.
Indefatigable in promoting her native cuisine, Jaffrey awaits the chef/owner concept to take hold among her America-based compatriots so “we can finally have great Indian restaurants.” In Jaffrey, those enterprising spirits, whoever they are, have a guiding light who has already paved the spice road to nirvana.