Madhur Jaffrey: You Ask The Questions

(Such as: so, were you driven to become a chef by our terrible British food? And what are the meals like in the EastEnders canteen?)

Thursday 21 August 2003 00:00

Born in Delhi, Madhur Jaffrey came to Britain aged 19 to study drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. After leaving Rada, she moved to New York, married the actor Saeed Jaffrey and began writing food articles to boost her income. Successful careers as an actress and TV chef followed. She is currently appearing in EastEnders; her film credits include the Merchant Ivory productions Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust and Cotton Mary. She has presented three cookery series for the BBC and published numerous cookery books. She lives in New York with her second husband, the violinist Sanford Allen.

What is your favourite British dish?
Peter Owen, Chichester

There are so many. I think English breakfasts are absolutely wonderful. When I was last in Britain, I was staying in a hotel and I had one every day. I had sausages, muffin and tomatoes - the works. And I like all those fruity English puddings, like rhubarb and custard.

Is it true that you only started collecting recipes when you arrived in Britain? Were you driven to become a chef by our terrible food?
Jon Howard, Shrewsbury

Well, that is true because I came to Britain in the 1950s. There was still smog and the food wasn't great. I was at Rada and the food in our little canteen wasn't the most exciting - we might have a thin slice of roast beef with vegetable and potatoes. And I'd come from a land of such plenty. I just used to look at my plate and dream of Indian food, so I started writing to my mother for recipes. One was a very simple meat dish with spices, then there was a cauliflower and potato dish and another was a simple daal. Good bread-making came to me much later, so I used to go to the local Jewish bakery and get pumpernickel bread, which I'd never eaten before, and have it with my Indian food. It was wonderful.

In EastEnders, your character ran off with her husband's best friend. How did you prepare for this role?

Tom Paterson, Manchester

I really wanted to do the role because Indian women are usually portrayed as so proper and withdrawn - the kind of women who just stay at home cooking and cleaning. I thought, "How wonderful of EastEnders to write a character that is realistic." What my character has done happens all the time in India; there are all kinds of stories of people running away and marrying their lovers. This is what commonly happens in those places, but somehow the image of Indian womanhood is different. But, no, I didn't do any preparation. I just read the script.

Your enthusiasm for food is obvious, but is there any foodstuff that you just can't stand?
Sanjay Patel, London

No, there isn't, actually. I like all kinds of food - things that other people won't eat. I travel a lot and I write about food in different parts of the world. I've eaten crickets, ants, tadpoles, field mice, fertilised duck eggs, worms and grubs. I ate dung worms in Thailand. I was dared to by an English photographer. They tasted of dung. I think you miss out if you're too squeamish. I've met people in England who won't eat a prawn, or won't eat animal parts. It's very uneconomical. If you kill an animal, I feel you're honour bound to use it all, or you shouldn't kill it.

What's the food like in the EastEnders canteen?
Yvonne Small, by e-mail

It's fine. But I don't know why the BBC canteen doesn't take advice from the corporation's wonderful cooking programmes. The food is OK, but it is not food that you hunger for. No, I haven't given them any tips; I think the BBC canteen is immune to tips. I first worked for the BBC in the 1950s and I don't think the food has changed since then. Maybe they have more salads now, but the philosophy hasn't changed: the food is always heavy.

What, if any, precautions can one take against post-curry indigestion?
Kate Waight, Berwick

I don't have this problem so I'm not sure how to answer the question. You just have to eat a good curry and you won't have indigestion. If it's freshly made, you should have no problems. And then make sure you don't overeat. You might just be overeating.

Apart from Britain or India, what is your favourite country to eat in?
Jackie Madden, by e-mail

Italy. I love the way food is approached there - you take your time over a meal. Italian food has excellent, fresh ingredients. It can be very simple, rather like Indian food. I remember one particularly good meal in Florence. It started with a grilled mushroom, followed by pasta, and then some fruit. It was delicious, absolutely delicious.

The partition of India happened when you were very young. Did it affect you personally?
Nav Khan, by e-mail

It affected me very deeply. I think it was the most horrible period in my life. Seeing the country where you were born split into two pieces is devastating for a child. I lived in Delhi and my classmates were half Hindu and half Muslim. As talk of partition grew, our class split right down the middle: Muslim girls on one side and Hindu girls on another. There was just no way to talk.

Then, as the split happened, there were riots and killing, and I saw my father and brothers getting guns because mobs were approaching the house. Then friends were killed. It was all very frightening and the even more frightening thing is that it is being repeated endlessly. Nobody learns from any of this.

Is it true that, as a child, servants cooked for you? When did your love affair with the kitchen actually begin?
Sarah Hartland, Glasgow

We had servants, but my mother was always hovering about. She knew how to cook very well, but I had never cooked anything myself. I had no interest in learning because the food was always so wonderful. There was a special breakfast where we would have pooris (puffed breads) and a potato dish with pickles, which I absolutely loved.

When I came to Britain, there were Indian restaurants on Leicester Square, but what they served was nothing like what I ate at home. So I had to start cooking for myself.

Who would you most like to cook for? And what would be on the menu?
Mike Ashby, Milton Keynes

I cook for all kinds of people, be they a humble workman or some grand actor. I usually ask people what they'd like, but I'm doing a lot of salmon curries and prawn curries at the moment just because it's summer.

In winter I may just go back to rich lamb with potato dishes and kormas. I'm not sure who I'd most like to cook for. But if Mr Blair and his wife would like to come for dinner, that would be wonderful. I'd like to cook for them.

Madhur Jaffrey is appearing in 'EastEnders' on BBC1

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