Madhur Jaffrey had a bone to pick.
Sitting before me – a sparrow in a sari and, her hair arranged neatly, practically Didion-esque – she was lamenting the fish ’n’ chips situation in ol’ London Town. “It’s hard to find a good place,” she was saying.
“Really?” I pounced, making sure I was hearing what I was hearing, that the one person most credited for starting the curry revolution in Britain was now, of all people, saying it was hard to locate the most traditional of offerings in the Commonwealth’s crucible.
Jaffrey, zesty at 80, reinforced her position. “There are so many good restaurants [now] in England. Much better than when I lived there. But fish ’n’ chips, in particular…”
She trailed off. Pass the irony. And dip it in chutney.
The woman I had come to meet, at Luma restaurant in Toronto, was swathed in swirls of pink and green, and also gustatory history itself. Raised in privilege in Delhi – where she eyewitnessed the passing of the British Raj – she decamped to London at 19 to study drama. She didn’t know one iota about cooking, and only caught the bug when she was unsated by the grub in her new home, and began writing letters to her mother in Delhi, asking for recipes. Her evangelizing about subcontinent cuisine began at a time when Margaret Thatcher was still the chemist-turned-Member of Parliament for Finchley.
Sometimes dubbed the “Indian Julia Child,” Jaffrey teems with stories about the long road to multiculti acceptance. In fact, the actual Julia helped, giving a platform to her several times on her shows, though even Jaffrey remains bemused at the memory. “She was totally puzzled,” she says, accentuating the extent to which the lingua franca for Julia et al. was, well, French cuisine. Indeed, Jaffrey is the first to tell you that when she organized her first public cooking class, after she’d penned her maiden book, no one signed up to come. Only when legendary gourmand James Beard offered to host it at his house, and invite some friends, did it happen.
Some 30 cookbooks and myriad TV stints later, Jaffrey’s influence is palpable: You can’t leave Westminster Abbey without running into a samosa, and even famed British restaurant critic A.A. Gill has matter-of-fact’ed, “Curry is England’s favourite dinner, and our national dish.” Her ripples are felt on this side of the pond, too, of course, if the preponderance of chai lattes is any indication.
Despite her tenure now as a kind of High Priestess of Biryani, she is loath to use the c-word. “I have never called myself a chef.” Like another famed dabbler, Nigella Lawson, she simply refers to herself as a “home cook.”
If anything, her real craft, and possibly true love, is acting. “That’s my training,” Jaffrey states.
It was what brought her to Britain, and what she’s continued to pursue in her latter decades in New York. Known for appearing in everything from films like Six Degrees of Separation to the BBC serial EastEnders, her trip to Canada, in fact, involved participating in a conversation at TIFF Bell Lightbox last month about the 2009 culinary comedy Today’s Special, in which she starred.
But it’s the plate that Jaffrey keeps returning to again and again. Out soon in North America is a new book that she’s devoted to vegetarian Indian cooking. This summer, she says, she will also appear at MAD, a prestigious food symposium organized annually in Copenhagen by Noma’s René Redzepi. Though a mainstay in these worlds, she’s a tad flummoxed by the ferocity of our Top Chef culture.
Her own grandchildren are deep into it, however. “They didn’t watch cartoons growing up,” she says with a laugh, “They watched food shows.”
“I’ve never tried to be a brand,” she adds, but tells me that of all the “brands” out there in the culinary-sphere, she does have a soft spot for England’s Jamie Oliver. “His food is tasty.”
When the subject turns to a radical restaurant I was just at in Bangkok, called Gaggan, her brows rise up in suspicion. The restaurant – which has become the darling of jet-setting Bollywood types – is run by a chef, Gaggan Anand, who trained with Spanish maestro Ferran Adria, and he is applying those molecular schemes, in a novel way, to Indian food.
“But did it fill you?” she wants to know. I tell her that it was quite good, but not for everyday.
At this point, Jaffrey reminded me of the time she was at some fancy dinner, filled with high jinks, and she just happened to be seated beside Martha Stewart. At one point, as the spicy icon tells me now, Stewart turned to her and whispered, “I’d rather be having dal.”