The mother of all bhajis

Chicken tikka masala is now the most popular dish in the country. And though Madhur Jaffrey has described herself as `an actress who cooks' there is no doubt which of her two careers has made the greater impact
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Kennington Lane in London SE11 is not an obvious location in which to find India's most distinguished food writer. Around the grotty little church hall where Madhur Jaffrey is rehearsing a new play, you can see an intriguing selection of eating-houses - a Spanish tapas bar, a garish tandoori joint, and what is probably the only shrine to Scottish cuisine in the metropolis - but you just know they aren't going to be her thing. Even the presence, 100 yards up the road, of Gandhi's, John Major's favourite post-Oval Indian restaurant, is unlikely to set her taste-buds a-pounding.

"I tend to eat at home rather than round here," she says later, "but there's a wonderful bar nearby which has the best soups." This turns out to be a tiny pub called the Prince of Wales, hard by Lambeth magistrates' court. It is piquant to consider the Delia Smith of Delhi, the Mrs Beeton of Bombay, standing by the bar, inhaling stale Guinness and eyeing the Cheesy Wotsits.

I've seen her both cold and warm. I winced as Jaffrey, playing the bitchy Begum in Heat and Dust, gave Greta Scacchi a lot of venomous eyeball as the English girl flirted with the Begum's son. And I encountered her in a more homely context last week, as I held her face in my hands - or at least her face on a jar of Madhur Jaffrey's Chicken Korma cooking sauce, just before I up-ended it over a seething melange of sliced chicken breast, garlic and celery. I've seen her in Shakespeare Wallah and The Assam Garden, swapping fragrances with Deborah Kerr, and in a rather good cop thriller on television in 1989 called A Wanted Man. I have seen her in the rehearsal room, dressed right down in stripy T-shirt and black stretch pants. She's a familiar figure - but one still approaches her with caution.

Because Madhur Jaffrey is a piece of work. She has a regal air, made up of equal parts self-composure, charm and steel. You would not wish to argue with her. You would not enjoy making a balls-up of the lamb dopiaza under her imperious gaze. She likes accuracy, proportion, homeliness and being right, all the virtues of a good cook. She is naturally magisterial, a teacher and a truffler after facts, which is why her books are much more than lists of recipes. And she has an unfakeable hauteur in her sad brown eyes that translates well to the screen. Tough and queenly, she looks as if she could snap up and devour enemies like spicy poppadoms.

Since she started at Rada in 1955, she has run two careers, as actress and cookery writer, side by side. It's not a dual identity you encounter a lot (only Jane Asher springs to mind) but she is not going to give up either life without a struggle. And though she has sometimes styled herself as "an actress who cooks", you could easily swap the roles - for she is passionate about food, but sensible about acting.

Her massive new book, Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian (Ebury Press, pounds 25) is her 14th best-selling compendium of recipes and anthropology. She chases new dishes and ingredients all over the world, identifies the influence of Vietnamese immigrants on Australian cuisine, discourses fluently on food as destiny (how the Spaniards destroyed the Incas by wiping out their quinoa grain) and dispenses foodie omniscience at a mile a minute.

The word "curry" makes her flinch, as do the words "tandoori" and "balti". "I flinch every time. Sometimes just once, sometimes a double flinch." Oh come now, I said, if someone asked you the secret of a good curry, what would you say? "I'd flinch and then say, `What exactly do you mean? Are you cooking Bengali food?' I'd try to pull them away from using that word, and try to make them think. If they said, `Oh, a korma', then they're talking about north Indian food in a certain style..."

She is fantastically busy right now, in between steering people away from chilli-based Bloke Cuisine. She's just been with her old collaborators, James Ivory and Ismael Merchant, making Cotton Mary, co-scripted and co- directed by herself. "Initially the idea was for Ismael to produce and me to direct. Then he was director, then we both were. It was a little confusing because Jim was also there."

Hmmm. The expression "too many cooks" seems appropriate. Ms Jaffrey smiles bleakly.

She's also lent her regal presence to two low-budget movies from Indian- American tyro directors, and starred with Robert De Niro in Flawless. She's about to open in a new play, Last Dance at Dum Dum, by the award- winning Ayub Khan-Din, whose East is East is currently knocking 'em dead on Broadway, and being filmed. "Last Dance is set in Eighties Calcutta, at a time when the Anglo-Indian world is crumbling. I play Muriel, who, because she's dying, can voice a lot of the angers and frustrations of the community. It's a wonderful part. She goes in and out of madness; she can be shrill; she has the ability almost to see the future before it happens."

Madhur Jaffrey, born Madhur Bahadur, has tacked between two cultures all her life. Pure-bred Indian, she went to a convent school in Cawnpore where her co-scholars were Anglo-Indians and her education was English. (Her father spoke Urdu and English, her mother only Hindi; they conversed in Hindustani. Her grandmother, a religious woman, said her prayers in Old Hindi and Sanskrit.That Bahadur household must have been a linguistic minefield.) The family looked down their noses on Anglo-Indians with their Western clothes and food and dating rituals. "As far as the Indians saw it - and it was convenient to see it that way - the Anglo-Indians were people with loose and lecherous ways, who slept around, whose girls went out with Tommies to dances and God knows what - and this reputation was built up, right or wrong, that they were not a bunch to respect."

But then, Ms Jaffrey's family were a proud and canny bunch. As Indian as a bhaji, they had lived in Delhi for centuries, supplying successive regimes with top-rank administrators - ministers, judges, doctors, civil servants - and bonding strategically with whoever held power, from Mogul emperors to Raj governors. "We sided with the British during the Indian Mutiny," says Madhur, "and I'm slightly embarrassed to say that's where the family land comes from." The family were from a high caste of scribes. ("There's a day in the year when you worship the tools of your trade - farmers worship the plough, warriors take out their swords or pistols; my grandmother would get out her Parker pen, and shout `Bring your pens, your pencils, your bottles of Quink!', and they'd be taken into the prayer room and she'd bless them.")

She grew up with a constantly repeated scene before her eyes: her extended family, with the grandfather at the head, seated around a table, eating; everybody would be there, and the group kept expanding as more children came to join it. It has since become a movie cliche of Jewish/ Italian community living, but it clearly provided Ms Jaffrey with the matriarchal confidence she abundantly possesses, and has stayed in her head an an image of how life should be. Now a grandmother, she likes to reproduce this gustatory idyll with her entire family every summer, on vacations to Martha's Vineyard.

So what's she doing spending the summer in the honking mean streets of south London? "You wonder, don't you?" she reflects. "You really wonder. It's going back to my roots, going back to where you started, where you learnt everything, the original way of doing it. Like finding the good apple, the good bread, the good pasta."

This Hemingway-ish riff triggers a long reminiscence about coming to London at 18 to study at Rada on a Government of India scholarship. It was her first trip to England. "My father brought me to Bombay; we stayed at the Taj Hotel; he put me on the boat. I waved goodbye without any sense of fear, because I was going off to do wonderful things. We landed in Southampton, and I was taken to London to find digs in the Finchley Road. I had no friends but some contacts. Basically my life was Rada, and eating beef and two veg in the canteen. That was why I started cooking." She discovered a shop in Warren Street that sold Indian ingredients, wrote to her mother pleading "Teach me how to cook", and she was away. Her boyfriend and first husband, Sayeed Jaffrey, came visiting and they sailed on the Queen Mary to America, taking her cumin-drenched recipes with them.

The rest was history - or, at least, social history. She has just picked up an Award for Excellence from New York State's Division for Women, for "changing America through her work in the fields of acting and cookery". Rather a heavy responsibility, wasn't it, changing America? "Isn't it amazing?" she asks modestly. "I got it from the State Governor. Quite comical." I remind her that the most popular dish in the UK is now chicken tikka masala. Was she responsible for that demographic shift, too? Ms Jaffrey does her rather delightful gurgling laugh. "I think it's India's revenge," she says. "You occupied us for so many years. Now we're occupying you."

`Last Dance at Dum Dum' starts at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London on 14 July and runs until 28 August