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Madhur Jaffrey marks 50 years of trailblazing cookbook 'An Invitation to Indian Cooking'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we bring you an icon of the community. Madhur Jaffrey first made Indian cuisine accessible to the West decades ago with her milestone cookbook "An Invitation to Indian Cooking."

2024 marks 50 years since that book made Madhur a household name, selling millions of copies and launching her into the culinary stratosphere. She spoke to us recently from her home in New York for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Madhur Jaffrey, Author, "An Invitation to Indian Cooking": I'm Madhur Jaffrey.

Amna Nawaz: In the crowded, cosmopolitan world of cuisine, she has single-name status.

Man: Madhur Jaffrey.

Man: Madhur Jaffrey.

Man: Madhur Jaffrey.

Woman: And we're talking about Madhur Jaffrey.

Amna Nawaz: But for famed Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey, the path to numerous bestselling cookbooks, multiple James Beard Awards, and the highest civilian honors in both India and the United Kingdom wasn't planned.

Madhur Jaffrey: I think of it as a huge, wonderful accident. And it's for -- serendipity. I don't know what you want to call it, but it just happened. And I have enjoyed myself hugely while it happened.

Amna Nawaz: Ironically, growing up in North India, Madhur Jaffrey didn't spend much time in the kitchen.

Madhur Jaffrey: Well, I did everything the boys did. I played with them. I played cricket. I went fishing. I went swimming in the river behind the house.

Amna Nawaz: An aspiring actress, she left home in Delhi for London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1958 at the age of 19. Far from home, what she missed most was her mother's cooking.

Madhur Jaffrey: We used to go up five floors of steps to the canteen. And then we would get this gray slice of roast beef that you could hardly look at.

And I would think, oh, my God, the food at home is so good. Why am I eating this? So what I did was, rather than just give up and eat that rubbishy food, I wrote to my mother and I said, look, I don't know how to cook, but can you teach me? Can you send me letters with recipes?

Amna Nawaz: Her mother obliged, and the transcontinental cooking classes began.

Madhur Jaffrey: She didn't write very long, elaborate recipes. She wrote three-line recipes. Take this, take that, stir that around, add a little water, and let it cook until it's done.

Amna Nawaz: There's no measurements or anything in the recipes.

Madhur Jaffrey: No real measurements. Well, it's just a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

But what was the wonderful thing that I realized much, much later was that I had a memory of the taste of everything I'd eaten.

Amna Nawaz: As she pursued a performing career years later in New York, strangers would ask again and again, where could they find good Indian food?

Madhur Jaffrey: So, it was always, oh, I don't know. Just come to my house, and I will -- and after a while, it became too much. I mean, how Many people could come to my house?

So I started writing recipes and giving them out to people. And this, -- it just sort of mushroomed and grew.

Amna Nawaz: In April of 1973, it bloomed into her seminal cookbook, "An Invitation to Indian Cooking," reissued 50 years later, a collection of the recipes for the dal, chutneys, keemas, and biryanis that defined her youth and kept her connected to home.

It wasn't the first Indian cookbook on the market in America, but it was the one that caught on. Madhur's straightforward, simple style, adapted from her mother's letters, offered unfamiliar Western chefs, newly intrigued by Indian cuisine, an easy entry.

Madhur Jaffrey: Now, what I have here...

Amna Nawaz: The book made Madhur a household name in America and the U.K. A cooking show on the BBC followed in 1982, combining her love of food and performing.

Madhur Jaffrey: If you want the dish to be hotter, you can really put in as much cayenne as you like.

Amna Nawaz: She recalled auditioning in a studio with no kitchen, no utensils and no food.

Madhur Jaffrey: Now I'm going to put that cumin that I roasted, because I want that lovely, smoky aroma. So I'm going to put that in now.

Amna Nawaz: I can see you doing it now. No food, no tools. You're doing the same thing now.

Madhur Jaffrey: I'm just -- like I'm telling you. And then I say, I'm peeling your cucumber and I'm grating it, grate, grate, grate right into the yogurt. I mix it in. Now I clean off the edges and put a little ground cumin on top. It'll look lovely, little ground Kashmiri chili powder on top because it'll look very pretty.

And there it is. There is your yogurt right there. So I did it that way. And I got the job.


Amna Nawaz: She produced bestselling cookbook after cookbook over the years, welcoming home cooks more deeply into the food she loved.

A memoir brought a generation of fans closer to the cook they'd come to know. And along the way, Madhur never abandoned her original love of acting.

Actress: What are you three so intense about?

Madhur Jaffrey: The jig is up.

Amna Nawaz: On television with a guest role in the "Sex and the City' reboot "And Just Like That" in 2021, and always ready to try something new, like a starring role in New York rapper Mr. Cardamom's music video for his song "Nani."


Amna Nawaz: But an invitation to Indian cooking remains an enduring part of Madhur's legacy.


Seema Nawaz, Mother of Amna Nawaz: Chickpeas.

Amna Nawaz: Better known as?

Seema Nawaz: Chana.

Amna Nawaz: Chana.

Seema Nawaz: So...

Amna Nawaz: For a generation of South Asians inspired to build new lives abroad in the 1960s and '70s, the book offered more than just recipes. It offered a connection to the home left behind, including for my own mother, Seema.

I wanted to share something with you, if you don't mind. My mother's copy of "An Invitation to Indian Cooking"...

Madhur Jaffrey: Oh, my goodness.

Amna Nawaz: ... has been used and reused so lovingly for so Many years, it's kept in a bag because the cover fell off.

Madhur Jaffrey: Oh, my goodness. That's the best.

Amna Nawaz: I mean, this is a well-worn, truly, truly loved book.


Amna Nawaz: And so my father said, you can't use this one anymore. He got her another copy.

Seema Nawaz: And do you know how to peel ginger? It's always good just to scrape it like that.

Madhur Jaffrey: I keep telling people when they're cooking, where's the emotional aspect of it? Because Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, there's a lot of emotion tied to our food. And it has to do with brothers, sisters, ancestors, cousins eating together, going on picnics together.

All those memories are tied into every little bit of food. So now the interesting thing was that this generation in the 19 -- early '70s was cooking from my book. But then they cooked the food and their children ate it. And then the children bought the book.

Seema Nawaz: You made a good base for the chickpeas. Look at that. See?

Amna Nawaz: Oh, it's so delicious.

Seema Nawaz: Now it's -- yes, it's coming. See?

Madhur Jaffrey: So I got letters from the children. "My parents used to cook from your cookbook. And now -- and we ate your food. So now we are cooking from that."

Amna Nawaz: All the spices hit the pan.

Madhur Jaffrey: And there have been three generations like that who have actually cooked from the book already and passed it on to their children. It's very gratifying. It's very nice to know that several generations within the same family have been cooking my recipes in America.

Amna Nawaz: Cheers.

Those families now await Madhur's next book, the details of which she's holding close for the moment.

Madhur Jaffrey: I won't tell you too much about it, but it's great fun for me.

Amna Nawaz: Is it another cookbook or not?

Madhur Jaffrey: It is. It is.

Amna Nawaz: But it's a kind of fun cookbook for me that includes aspects of me that you don't know. You will find out.

Amna Nawaz: Now I'm intrigued.

Madhur Jaffrey: That's what I meant to do. And I will leave it at that.

Amna Nawaz: The happy accident that inspired this journey is still propelling the now 90-year-old Madhur Jaffrey down new paths ahead.

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