Actress in the Kitchen

Madhur Jaffrey is the author of more than a dozen cookbooks, including Madhur Jaffrey’s Taste of the Far East (Clarkson Potter, 1993), which was named the Best International Cookbook and Book of the Year in 1993 by the James Beard Foundation. She is also the menu consultant for New York City’s Dawat restaurant and has been called the “best-known ambassador to Indian food in the United States” by Chef magazine.

But food and cookbooks are Jaffrey’s second profession. As an award-winning actress, she has appeared in numerous theater performances, television programs, and films, including the Broadway musical Bombay Dreams and the soon-to-be released film Hiding Divya.

In Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India (Knopf, 2006), her recently published memoir about growing up in India, Jaffrey revisits the foods and flavors of her childhood.

At the end of Climbing the Mango Trees, you give us hints of your process of becoming an actress, but you don’t mention your induction into cookbook writing. How did that come about?

That was all very strange for me. I studied to be an actress [at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]. For two years I was in England studying, and I had acted in India before that. And then I came to America to continue my acting, and I wasn’t getting any work as an actress—very little, $10-a-week kind of off-Broadway jobs that certainly weren’t going to pay my rent. So I started writing. I was writing about anything that I knew anything about. Initially I was writing for magazines and newspapers about art, because that’s all I knew about—dancing, music, painting, sculpture. And I wrote my first article about food for a magazine called Holiday at that time. And that somehow led me into another world.

Also, I had done a film with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant [Shakespeare-Wallah, 1965], for which I won the best-actress award in Berlin. Then I was in New York and I thought, “Now I’m going to get a lot of acting work.” And nothing came. There was no work. I was an Indian, you know, and I wasn’t getting any work. And then, for Shakespeare-Wallah, The New York Times did a piece on me—it was really a promotion for the film—as an actress who liked to cook. And that somehow, in combination with the very first piece I wrote, led me—not that willingly—into the world of cookery writing. And I’ve been there ever since. And now of course I do both. I do my films, and I do my cooking-world activities, and they go on absolutely side by side.

Who taught you how to cook?

Nobody taught me. When I was growing up in India, I hardly went into the kitchen, and didn’t know how to cook. And when I did go in, it was just to watch the cooks making something, or my mother making something rather special. And then when I was in England as a drama student, I was suddenly desperate for food, because the food in England wasn’t particularly good at that time. And of course my longing for India and my loneliness and homesickness took the form of looking forward to eating that kind of Indian food again. And the only way to eat it was to cook it. So I wrote letters to my mother. And she wrote me back little air letters with recipes. They weren’t exact recipes, but I had the memories in my head of the flavors, and I was able to re-create them with my mother’s help. I would learn one dish and I would cook it for a month, and then I would learn another dish and cook that for a month, and it went on like that. And I came to America and asked for more recipes, and that’s how it started.

Did you have any problems trying to re-create those recipes?

The trouble is that the meats and vegetables are different in India. For example, most of the time the meat we eat is goat, and it has its own flavor and the bones are so delicious—they have their own flavor that they add to the sauce. So that I can’t quite do. And the vegetables, for example, the tomatoes and the cauliflower—they have more texture, they’re crisper, they have more flavor. We talk about organically grown, and things grown in farms nearby and how we should be eating things that are grown close to you … well, in India that’s how everything is. It still comes from the farms that are closest to you, every day in trucks that are not refrigerated, and sold in the market. And people go out and shop every morning for their vegetables and their meat. It’s all very fresh and different in flavor, so I can’t get exactly the flavor of India.

How have the foods and tastes you wrote about in your memoir changed for you later in life?

When I go back to Delhi now, it’s a different Delhi from [what] I described in the book, because I was born when India was still a British colony, and India was one big country. And now it’s three countries—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And my memory was of Delhi of another period, when there were just about three-quarters of a million people living there. Now there are 16 million, so it’s really, really changed and the foods have changed. There are a lot of refugees who came into Delhi, and because it’s also the capital of the country, people from all over India are there. And the food is no longer that specific “Delhi” food. There are a lot of national foods there, because you know India is a huge country, like Europe. Each state of India is like a country itself, and it has its own foods, and they’ve all mingled with the foods of Delhi. Even the snacks that I described in the book—if you go to a snack shop today, they’ll be much sweeter. The taste will be different because the love of sweeter things has seeped into Delhi. When I was growing up, it was this wonderful mixture of hot and sour with just a touch of sweet. But that is what happens. People move on. And tastes change and foods change.

You’ve written two popular vegetarian cookbooks, Madhur Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking and Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian: More Than 650 Meatless Recipes from Around the Globe. Are you a vegetarian yourself?

I’m not a vegetarian, though my grandmother certainly was and my mother preferred vegetarian food, though she ate meat. So I’ve grown up with both, and I find that I don’t eat meat most of the time. But I do eat it. I eat everything, but most of the time, I’d say four days a week, I eat vegetarian.

Given that this is a different type of book for you—a memoir—how has this been a different experience for you as a writer?

It’s still writing, but it’s a different kind of writing, and I probably will be doing more of that. It’s something I’ve done with hesitation. Even now there’s this question of will I write a next installment [of Climbing the Mango Trees], and I’m still very hesitant. I don’t know which way I’m going to go.