Madhur Jaffrey: A taste of history

Madhur Jaffrey, iconic actress and the writer who brought Asian food into millions of homes, has revisited her Indian childhood. Maya Jaggi meets her in Manhattan
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Will power may be a key ingredient in her dual success. What began as a resting actor's second string, with the book An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1973, grew into a parallel career as a world authority on Asian cuisine, who revolutionised the way Indian food was perceived and eaten in Britain and beyond. Appearing in more than 20 films, and stage plays, she meanwhile pioneered the role of the television chef for the BBC in the early 1980s, and has written more than 15 cookery books, as well as three books for children and articles on fine art (her earliest ambition was to be a painter), architecture and travel.

The source of that energy and drive is among the revelations in Climbing the Mango Trees: A memoir of a childhood in India (Ebury, £18.99). But, to declare an interest, the gilded childhood in Delhi mansions and Himalayan hill stations, the family picnics with a retinue of servants, are deeply familiar to me, though at one remove. I glimpsed them in sepia photographs belonging to my mother, Madhur's eldest sister Lalit. After the sisters studied at Delhi university, my mother, "L", left for London on her honeymoon to become an English teacher, while my aunt, "M", after a scholarship to RADA, settled in New York. As the book evokes a bygone world on the cusp of Indian independence, it also traces the origins of a family diaspora across three continents.

The leitmotif of taste, and the barely conscious logging of myriad flavours, runs through the memoir, from the honey dripped on the newborn Madhur's tongue, to ripe mangos cooled in mountain streams, and the blancmange she concocted as a pupil of domestic science (which she flunked) under the dwindling Raj. While some people have a good ear, she maintains that she was blessed with a good palate. Though class dictated that she never entered the kitchen as a child, her "taste memory" was sufficient to retrieve the flavours she later sought by trial and error in London bedsits.

In her compact galley kitchen in Manhattan, even a "simple" lunch involving smoked salmon is prepared with flair and precision. Drizzling oil over basil tomatoes, she says that "they never used to let me write about Italian food, though I know as much about that. American magazines would rather I stick to Asia. The irony is that a white American can write about India after a day, but I'd need to have lived in Italy for years."

Her husband, violinist Sanford Allen, rehearses Bach on his Stradivarius next door, for a recital upstate, where they have a country house. They married in 1969, after meeting when she was a guide at the Lincoln Center, and he the first African-American to join the New York Philharmonic. "He asked me to lunch, then sent a huge bunch of roses to me in London," after she won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival for her role as a Bollywood coquette in Merchant Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah. The trophy rested briefly on our mantlepiece in Chiswick when I was small. Now I learn she was thrilled, but felt she didn't deserve it: "I was only supporting actress. Others thought the lead, Felicity Kendal, should have won."

The house where Madhur Bahadur was born in 1933, the fifth of six children, was built, along with others, by her barrister grandfather on a swathe of orchard land, bought through a reward for services to the British during the 1857 Mutiny. By her time, they were spinning for Mahatma Gandhi and trooping out of the cinema when God Save the King came on. They were Kayasthas, or high-caste "free-thinking warrior-scribes". Though scornful of caste, she notes that both I and my brother Rohit are journalists, and likes to think that ancestral worship of quill and ink is "in the genes". Of her three daughters, Zia is a writer and journalist, author of The Invisibles (1996); Meera a teacher and fluent Mandarin speaker; and Sakina an actor, finishing her first screenplay.

While the memoir reveals a privileged family that lived in neighbouring mansions and ate together ("it didn't occur to me that families came in sizes smaller than 30 people"), it is also Indian history in microcosm, with the accretion of conquest and languages over the centuries. The family was "Hindu by origin but heavily veneered with Muslim culture and English education". One ancestor was finance minister to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and the men were scholars of court Persian and Sanskrit.

Under the Raj, the sisters went to convent schools, and their father listened to the BBC, though, a Congress party member, he took Madhur to India Gate in 1947, to see Nehru and Mountbatten in an open carriage for the final lowering of the Union Flag. She says that "it was, and wasn't, a westernised family. My mother didn't speak a word of English. But having a foot in East and West allows you to see the world from all points of view."

The "inequality of men and women was a great irritant" - though two of her aunts were among the first women at Delhi university in the 1920s. The family was "intellectual, liberal - we could question anything we wanted to, and did". During the slaughter of Partition in 1947, when her uncle helped Muslim friends escape to Pakistan, she was mocked by other Hindus in class for being "too broadminded. It was a bitter revelation - I didn't belong to either side." Her first husband, Saeed Jaffrey, whom she met at All India Radio, was Muslim. "My parents weren't thrilled, but it wasn't because he was a Muslim, but an actor - they didn't feel he had a steady job."

There were "many childhood ghosts that needed facing", she says. One cousin died of a rabid dog bite. Another was abducted in Partition riots and lost his mind. One sister had part of a leg amputated for a suspected tumour. But most wounding was a feeling of being cruelly picked upon by her father's elder brother, a lawyer and patron of the arts. "All my complexes date from him. He could make you feel wonderful or terrible. I was never favoured, and because I didn't have his approval, it encouraged in me a drive to prove myself." That also fuelled self-reliance. "If things are going against me, I'm optimistic I can change them."

Acting was when "that constant critical chatter in my head stopped", and the memoir ends as she leaves for Rada. Living on chocolate in London, she learned to cook from recipes her mother sent in Hindi. After divorce in the mid-1960s, she turned to writing cook books. "The kids were fed up. One week we'd have soup, the next, vegetables. The fridge was stuffed with things nobody could eat."

She now inspires respect, even awe, in other chefs. To dine with her in restaurants is sometimes to find complimentary dishes multiplying on the table. At a Manhattan restaurant she lent her name to, she wanted every dish, however sublime, to be that bit better. Yet perfectionism can be exhausting. "I'm still a one-man band. I do all the shopping and cooking."

Acting parts have improved, although "young Asian men are still playing terrorists. I'd never play a terrorist's mother. I hate being stereotyped." Her latest role, as Meryl Streep's psychotherapist in Prime, was written for an Indian. But, "when I played Robert De Niro's physio [in Flawless] it was written for any doctor. It would be great if casting could be totally colour-blind."

She was partly responsible for introducing producer Ismail Merchant to director James Ivory, and is still devastated by Merchant's death in May. "It was unbelievably unexpected. The last time we talked, he'd broken his ankle, and we compared notes." She recalls that "Ismail ate with relish, mussing the food in his hand. I'll miss cooking for him." Despite her injuries, she has finished shooting in Punjab for a film, Partition. "Whatever happens, I keep going. I've been working more than ever - there are so many things I want to do. The drive is endless."

Biography

Madhur Jaffrey was born in Delhi in 1933, studied literature there and won a scholarship to RADA in London. Her early films included Shakespeare Wallah (1965), The Guru (1969) and Autobiography of a Princess (1975). She also appeared in Heat and Dust (1983), The Assam Garden (1985), and Cotton Mary (1999); her latest film, Prime, opens in the US next week. Her first cookery book was An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), followed by a bestselling trilogy that accompanied BBC TV series: Indian Cooking (1982), Far Eastern Cooking (1989) and Flavours of India (1995). Her World Vegetarian Cookbook appeared in 1998 and The Ultimate Curry Bible in 2003. This month, Ebury publishes Climbing the Mango Trees. Madhur Jaffrey, who has three daughters, is married to the violinist Sanford Allen and lives in New York.

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