For over 45 years, Madhur Jaffrey has been one of the great ambassadors of Indian cuisine. She's written 30 cookbooks, and is an icon in the food world. We had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with her at her home in New York, an apartment she’s had for 50 years, where she used to throw the dinner parties that became the basis for her first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. During their time together, Madhur and Francis Lam spoke a length about many things including a mango soup from her new book, Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook, the history of Indian food, and how the new guard of South Asian food writers are changing the world of food. You can make her Gujarati Mango Soup at home with your Instant Pot.
Madhur Jaffrey: I'm going to welcome you with a mango soup. Right now is very much the heart of the mango season. In every season in India, we celebrate whatever grows in that season in some way. Many of us consider the best mango to be the Alphonso mango. This is a soup made with the Alphonso mango puree. It’s a vegetarian soup; it’s not vegan because it has yogurt in it. It is in my book and can be made in the Instant Pot; that's the wonderful thing about it. You can make it in about 10 minutes. It's a very quick, wonderful soup.
Francis Lam: Is it savory or sweet?
MJ: You taste it. Normally in India, it is from the western state of Gujarat. All food is very specific in India; it comes from a region, as you know. This is from Gujarat, the western state. They serve it to celebrate the mango and they eat it with a puri, which is a fried bread. It’s the idea of eating something fried and slightly crunchy with the soup. Oh, my mouth waters just thinking about it. So, just taste it.
FL: It's a beautiful color.
MJ: It’s the mango color. You celebrate a lot of the colors of India as well. It's slightly sweet, slightly sour, slightly hot and spicy, and it's sort of – yummy! [laughs]
FL: Yeah. I would never have thought of mangoes this way. Because of the cumin and the mustard seed.
MJ: Right. And curry leaves, which give it a lovely flavor.
FL: Almost a peanut-y, grassy flavor. Oh, this is beautiful.
MJ: Okay. So, that's my offering for the day and after this, you’re getting nothing more.
FL: This is a real gift. [both laugh] I feel like we can talk about mango soup for the next hour.
MJ: Yes, we can do all mangoes. In India, mango is such is such a great fruit, and we have so many varieties. Like you talk about French cheese, I could talk about the Indian mango. But we can talk about anything.
FL: This is amazing that this is our first conversation. I don't think there's a question, at least certainly not in my mind, that you are the greatest teacher of Indian cooking America has ever seen. So, I was surprised – and then a little bit delighted – when I read in your memoir that you had to take a cooking exam in high school that you failed at miserably.
MJ: Yeah. I did. I don't know why I have to explain, but I love to eat. Nobody had bothered to explain to me that to eat you have to cook because food, good food, great food, just came from the kitchen every day for every meal in my home. So, we never worried about that or thought about that. We were worried about, you know, reading and writing and other things. And I was very bad at math. The choice was either you do algebra, geometry, all those things – which I said, no way, no way. I can’t go there even. They said the other choices besides arithmetic are domestic science and needlework. Then give me that! Arithmetic was going to be a problem. It turned out arithmetic wasn't going to be the problem, it was the cooking. Because they had this teacher who seemed to have come from the 1920s Britain. She said, for washing you need a scrub board, and she taught us how to wash on a scrub board. And then she taught us how to prepare dishes like blancmange.
FL: Like, from the 1400s?
MJ: Yeah, exactly. The worst of the worst. That's what I learned. And then for the exam, I thought they would give us blancmange and this and that. But, by that time India was an independent nation and they said, here are potatoes, here are 20 spices, he is oil, here is an unlit Indian stove where you have to put the coal and the water and whatever in and light it. Cook! Make something out of anything that you see here. What did I know? I could make blancmange, but this? So, I didn't know what to do. I just put everything together as best as I could. I must've failed that one.
FL: If ou didn't grow up cooking, then how did you learn to cook?
MJ: I was studying drama in England. I had got a scholarship and I was in England, and there was terrible food. This was in the late 1950s, just after the war. There was a big green smog at three o’clock in England. Rationing was barely over. Very bad food on the whole. But, I thought maybe I could go to the few Indian restaurants that were around there, like Leicester Square, and get a nice meal. Horrible Indian food, just horrible. Nothing like the food I'd had before.
I started writing letters to my mother. I knew my mother could cook because she didn't come from the kind of family my father came from. She came from a more humble family where the women cooked, so she had grown up cooking and she knew how to make everything. She didn't need to do it, but every now and then she wanted to, and she would go in the kitchen and cook. I asked her, I said, just send me recipes for specific dishes. She’d send back three-line recipes: take this, take that, put it together, stir it around and when it's done you take it off the fire. [both laugh] But, this is something that I began to realize actually many, many decades later, that I must've had a food memory, a taste must’ve stayed in my head. Because I just improvised and changed and tried it again and again until the taste was right. I must've remembered it. With that method, my mother's three-line recipes, and my remembering the taste of it, I was able to improvise.
FL: Interesting. When you were in London, you were there studying drama. That had been your training. And to this day you work as an actor.
FL: And yet, many of us – certainly those of us in the food world – know you primarily as a cookbook writer, as a teacher of Indian food. Are there ways in which you feel like you approach cooking and acting similarly? Are they related at all in your mind?
MJ: Well, yes. Definitely, in many ways. One is I feel that I'm acting the part of this cooking person. I don't feel somehow that that's me really.
MJ: I just don't. Because I'm not convinced. I never call myself a chef. If somebody says, chef, I say, no, no, no. I just cook. That's all I do because I never learned. I don't know how to chop fast. I never learned technique or anything like that. I'm not a trained chef. I'm a trained actress.
FL: That's interesting.
MJ: When you are on television, say cooking, you need all your acting a bit. You need that confidence that you get to stand alone, speak sentences without being afraid, have the ability to reach somebody that you're talking to, take your pauses when you want to take your pauses. That comes from training, the training for an actress.
FL: And also connecting with like an emotional moment.
FL: You’ve also written 30 cookbooks. You can't feel like an impostor, can you?
MJ: No. I don't feel like an imposter. I feel in many ways I’m an amateur who always has been hardworking and always goes to learn as much as I can and master whatever I'm doing. I've always been like that, but I'm not trained to do it.
FL: I love what you said about being an amateur because I'm not a linguist but my understanding of what amateur means actually is not just "not a professional," but amateur comes from amare, right? To love. Someone who loves doing a thing.
INSTANT POT RECIPE: Gujarati Mango Soup by Madhur Jaffrey. Photo: Dana Gallagher
FL: You have a new cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook; it's your 30th or 31st cookbook. You've lost count, you're waving your hands. [both laugh] And, to be completely honest, no offense to your publisher, but I thought, okay, here's Madhur Jaffrey’s Instantly Indian Cookbook. I kind of figured it would be like, let's take some of her greatest hits and we'll get a recipe developer to retrofit them to make them in an Instant Pot.
MJ: I could never do that. It's just impossible for me. They say, no, you don't have to worry, just take some recipes from here and from there. I say, I can't do that. I have to test every recipe, try things out, see what this utensil does and then work out what wonderful things I can do in it. I can never do it the easy way. For me, the research for everything is 90 percent of the fun. The writing is the worst part, but the research is the most exciting. [Francis laughs] Through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, I asked for articles where I knew nothing. I said I'm going to write about the food in Thailand for Gourmet. I proposed it for them, and their whole attitude was, “We know nothing about Asia. You go do what you want."
MJ: It was my way of learning about Thailand, my way of learning about the Philippines. I did that with India because I only knew North India. So, it was my way of teaching myself and I'm full of curiosity – that I am. And the research was always so exciting. Research in the libraries or research in the field, going into homes and learning things I knew nothing about. That was so exciting. It still is.
I remember we were traveling in Thailand and going to Khon Kaen region. I had not been. It’s on the border of Laos. I was trying to get into homes in Khon Kaen to learn new recipes and I just could not make contact. Usually there's one person who knows one person and another person. There's a whole knack to get to go to homes and get recipes, and nothing was working. Then somebody wrote back to me and said, we will help you for 3,000 dollars. I’d never paid for the recipe before. I didn't know who they were, but they said, we'll take you into so many homes and you just sit with them; we’ll set it all up for you perfectly. I said, okay. I figured they needed money and I can give it to them. It's alright.
As it happened, my photographer who is traveling with me was English and married to a Thai woman. When he got there, I told him what my deal was. And these guys, they were young, and sort of lounging around in the chairs waiting for me. He didn't like the way they were lounging. He didn't like the fact that I had to pay them. Because of his wife, he felt the authority to tell these people off. He not only told them off, he told him to leave. So, then I was stuck. I had four or five days in Khon Kaen, in that general area in northeastern Thailand, where all the wonderful raw salads like larb and all of that come from, with no way to explore them. I was just totally downcast.
I asked the waiter to bring me a whiskey; that’s my recourse every time when things go really bad. [both laugh] He said, “Madam, maybe I can be of some help. Maybe you can come to my house.” He was so sweet. The way they eat that is that first they go to the market and buy the sticky rice, which is being steamed at the market. They don't make their rice at home. And then his wife cooked everything from fish to vegetables, and they did their prayers to the kitchen gods and the garden. It was all beautiful. From then on, they looked after us.
MJ: Sometimes it just works out.
FL: Yeah. And step one, getting whiskey is always a good plan.
MJ: Always a good plan!
FL: Your first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, was published in 1973, and I think of it now as this reference book to Indian cuisine, although mostly the food of Delhi, where you grew up. I am also surprised by how personal it was and how much of your character and voice there is. Was that on purpose to make it feel like it was accessible to people that didn’t know Indian cooking?
MJ: I knew nothing about writing books. I just wrote as it came to me. And I spoke, I suppose, from the heart, putting my thoughts down as best as I could. I never thought that my personality should shine through in some way; it just came out that way. I never thought about it. That has stayed my style – and I still write in that style pretty much today – which is, say what you’re really doing. Be honest. Describe. And if you have a little fantasy that you want to put in, then put it in there; someone can take it out if they feel it’s really dreadful. That’s just how I thought and that’s how I wrote. I knew nothing else.
FL: I want to ask you about something that I read in An Invitation to Indian Cooking that blew my mind. Tandoori chicken and naan, two of the most stereotypical Indian dishes for people who don’t know the cuisine very well, were unknown in Delhi until partition in 1947. Tell us about that history.
MJ: Well, it’s a very sad history. What had happened was that India in the 1900s was just one nation. It had Hindus, it had Muslims, and the British were still there. And the British manipulated the division between the Hindus and the Muslims. Divide and conquer, there was a lot of that going on. They encouraged this kind of rivalry between Hindus and Muslims within India. If you really read the history of how Pakistan was formed, it was just such a cruel thing. They decided that they would create Pakistan, and whoever drew the line just went to the page and drew a line. It didn’t matter if it went through villages, if it went through neighborhoods, roads were cut in half. They said, this is Pakistan and this is India. And there was panic on both sides. Muslims were rushing to go and join the part that would be Pakistan because in any area turbulence started. They started killing each other. Hindus started killing Muslims. Muslims started killing Hindus. Some say one million people, some say two million people were actually killed during that period.
Once the partition should happen, the refugees from the Punjab – which was going to be in Pakistan – from the northwest part of the Punjab and the frontier areas near Afghanistan, they were coming. There were Hindus that lived there. They were making the trek to India. And what did they bring with them? They brought a few utensils so they could cook along the way. They brought the tandoors, which were portable. All of the refugees came and settled in Delhi and started cooking to make a living, and they made what they knew. For us, who’d never seen chicken that was lightly roasted and brown at the top with this red color, and these naans, these yeasty breads that actually rose. All of this was coming with these refugees, and that was the first time we’d ever seen them. Of course, from there it traveled and became a part of Indian food. Within the next 20 years it was everywhere.
FL: I hate to reduce these incredibly complicated and, as you said, terribly bloody histories into this sort of feel-good moment - like, at least we got this food out of it. And the history of colonialism all over the world is that same story; you have these incredibly painful histories. But, there are foods that come out of those moments that we enjoy today.
MJ: They come out of every moment – good, bad and different. Food comes out of every moment in history, and that’s the exciting thing. India has been such an active country for 5,000 years that we have foods coming out all the time, all associated with this or that. The start of Buddhism. The start of Jainism. The change of religions. The start of vegetarianism. All of these come out of circumstances of history.
FL: Are you interested in those foods and how they’ve adapted to their home country?
MJ: Very much. Actually, I wrote a book about that. Start in Trinidad, close to home, and look at the Indian food there. The soup that I made for you I actually got from South Africa; it’s made by Indians in South Africa.
MJ: People came as indentured labor when slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century. Suddenly all these people who had slaves didn’t know what to do. Who was going to look after their plantations? How was it going to work? So they figured out cleverly this whole system of indentured labor, which was another form of slavery. They actually kidnapped people in the streets of Calcutta and said, “We’re taking you to find work somewhere.” Kidnapped them and put them on boats! These people didn’t know where they were going; they were just heading west. They didn’t know how long it would take. They were given rations, and depending on the rations they were given over the month they developed some kind of cuisine that was reminiscent of what they ate at home. They weren’t given too much. It was chilies, turmeric, tamarind, one or two things like that. No whole wheat breads, so they couldn’t eat those good breads; they were given white flour. So, their foods to me are just so interesting. And the names they give to foods are sometimes close to Indian names. Same is true in Sumatra. You find a lot of Indian food, but it’s all changed. In some parts of Sumatra they use nothing but fresh herbs like fresh turmeric.
FL: Oh, interesting.
MJ: All fresh. Fresh chilies. Because everything grows so easily because it’s wet and damp all the time. So they use nothing but fresh. Very little of the dried stuff.
FL: And that changes the flavor.
MJ: It changes the flavor.
FL: What is a dish that you saw there that is reminiscent of some other place?
MJ: I’ll never forget this dish. It was a fish dish. They ground up fresh turmeric leaves, fresh turmeric, fresh ginger, and there were a lot of chilies in it, lot of garlic in it, and they made a sauce with that. Then they went to the pond just outside and got a fish, cut it up and put it in that. It was delicious. A very different aroma from the fresh turmeric.
FL: That’s fascinating, too, because one thing I’ve learned from you – that a lot of people have learned from you – is that in India there is no such thing as curry powder, right?
MJ: Right. But there are powders for different specific dishes. Or generally there’s garam masala. People say, “Oh, you don’t use curry powder? Then what is this?” This is garam masala, a combination of spices that are aromatic and heat the body. It’s like the old humors of Greece; that whole system is still believed among some Indians, that miracle system where things are heating and cooling. So, for example, black pepper, cinnamon, black cardamom, mace, nutmeg, these are all heating. They are aromatics, but they also heat the body.
FL: Garam means hot?
MJ: Garam means hot. Yes. But in the sense, in this place, of heating.
FL: Not temperature, but it heats your body.
MJ: Yes. And every household has its own garam masala, which can vary. Then there are special spice mixtures for making sambal, a South Indian soupy dal dish with vegetables in it, which is delicious. People have special powders for special things. You can go to the market and buy these special things; you can make them yourself also because every family has a recipe to make them. So, it’s both. But there’s no such universal thing as curry powder, because then every dish would taste exactly the same. And sometimes you use one spice, sometimes you use two spices, sometimes you use three. Sometimes you use one spice in two different ways, like you might roast it and use it fresh. Like in this soup. You have the ground cumin and you have the cumin that’s popped in hot oil. You have both kind of cumin for different tastes going into the same soup. It varies. People say, “It’s too much to learn.” It’s not too much to learn. Just follow the recipe. Do one recipe, follow what it is saying, and you will have learned it.
FL: Tell me about this technique of using the same spice two different ways in a dish.
MJ: You want different flavors. The roasted cumin or the cumin that’s being put into hot fat and allowed to sizzle and pop –
FL: The whole seeds, you mean.
MJ: Yes. That has an exaggerated roasted aroma of itself. It’s like it’s being subjected to a burn, a slow burn. It’s just different. And you know the taste because you’ve had it 100 times. I want that in this dish. And when we’re making street food in North India, I’ll very often roast the cumin in a pan and then grind it. This gives it a particular flavor that I want. I’ll put that on potatoes along with salt, chilies and lemon juice and just eat that as a snack.
FL: It really is a matter that you can’t just say it’s about the ingredient because it’s how you treat the ingredient that brings out different aspects of it.
MJ: It’s like a painter. You have red and purple and blue on your palette. You take a little bit of this and mix it with a bit of that to get one kind of tint. You mix and match.
FL: And really the key is understanding ingredients and different techniques.
MJ: The thing is, it shouldn’t scare people off. What I say is, don’t even listen to any of this! [Francis laughs] Just go and decided which dish you want to try to make. If you want to make this soup, just make it. You’ll learn several things about spices as you’re making it. Then maybe make it again and make a second dish that will feature a few other things. But don’t feel like you have to sit and study and get 30 spices to put on your shelf that you don’t know anything about. Don’t let that worry you. Just make one or two dishes that appeal to you in the book. Make them more than once and you will have learned automatically.
FL: Beautiful. You’ve probably done more than 1,000 interviews, and almost inevitably when someone interviews a person who has been in food for a long time they come up with the old cliché, “What would be your last meal?”
MJ: Oh, God.
FL: I was surprised to learn that often you’ll say noodles. Why noodles?
MJ: Because when you’re having a traumatic experience, like if you’re dying, things don’t go down the throat so easily. When you are very tense, nothing goes down easily. Whereas noodles, to me, just slip down. And they are so delicious. So, why wouldn’t you have them?
FL: That’s a totally practical answer. I didn’t realize I’d be going there. [both laugh]
MJ: I love our Indian rice noodle so much. I love Chinese noodles. I love noodles from any country.
FL: The noodle is one of humankind’s greatest inventions. You mentioned Indian noodles, and this is purely by ignorance, but of all the ways I think about Indian food I don’t think of it as being a cuisine that has a real emphasis on noodle culture. Unlike, say, Chinese cuisine or Southeast Asian cuisine.
MJ: Now I will become very parochial. Tell me where you think noodles originated.
MJ: It’s a tricky question.
FL: There are three theories, one of which I think is completely wrong. I’ll tell you the three theories I am aware of. The whole thing about Marco Polo going to China and bringing them back to Italy is wrong, right?
MJ: I won’t say no or yes until the end. [both laugh]
FL: But because I’m Chinese, I too am going to be parochial and say they are invented in China. However, I understand that there are theories that say Arabic cultures also had noodles that they made from wheat. But the way you’re looking at me –
MJ: I’m looking outside.
FL: It tells me you’re going to tell me something.
MJ: No, I think that that is correct.
FL: Okay. Those are the two theories I know.
MJ: I think they had to originate where there was wheat. You can’t have noodles without wheat. So, it is that whole Tigris and Euphrates area – Mesopotamia. There are wonderful writers like Eugene Anderson who’s done a wonderful food history of China, which you must read. Even he talks about it, that if you trace the various names anthropologically for noodles and dumplings as they traveled, you will see some changing as it goes towards China. There were parts of the Mekong Delta that had rice originally. What China had originally was buckwheat; that was their grain – buckwheat, not rice. That was their first grain. So, the whole theory is that noodles originated in the Middle East and then took all these forms of dumplings, this, that and the other, and moved along the Tibetan border and towards China, and moved into India as well. So, we got a lot of the noodle-y dishes, which we used differently, but the south used the rice that they always had to make noodles. Those are the ones that I love beyond anything else. And I love the Chinese rice noodles more than the wheat noodles.
FL: They have such a beautiful texture. And it’s not a crispness, but they break in a particular way.
MJ: Right. They can take various forms. They can be almost like a pancake rolled up. I love that version of it as well. You can cut them up and get finer version. You can get rice sticks. Every country uses noodles in Southeast Asia.
FL: How are they typically served in Southern India?
MJ: It depends. In the morning, for breakfast, you can have these, they are called idiyappam. I love it in the morning with fresh coconut milk and some cardamom. You put that over the noodles and eat them like a cereal. So delicious. But in the evenings, you have to cook a nati curry. It could be fish, it could be chicken. I remember there was one restaurant in London that served these noodles with a coconut chicken curry; I used to make a beeline for that place! It happened much later, not in my early years. It was in the 1980s and 90s that this place came to be. I used to love that.
FL: But, you did not grow up in a noodle- or rice-eating part of India?
MJ: Where we grew up there were breads and good Basmati rice because Basmati rice grows in the north.
FL: Do you have favorite breads?
MJ: Oh, yes. My favorite kinds of bread is the basic one that we had every day at our home, which is called phulka. It is like a chapati if you know what that is.
FL: A flatbread.
MJ: Right. Think of the finest, thinly ground tortilla you can imagine that would be put on a Mexican comal, but in India it would be on a tava griddle. It is cooked lightly on both sides then put right on the fire so that it puffs up and becomes like a five-inch bowl. You could put butter on it; I never like any butter on mine. Then you pat it down so it unpuffs and you break it to eat it with your food. The phulka, to me, is heaven.
FL: Not to bring you back to your first book, but the introduction to An Invitation to Indian Cooking is sort of hilarious. I think the first line in the book is, “I wrote this book out of self-defense.” Everyone would come up to you and say, where do I get good Indian food here? And your answer was, you can't, you have to come to my house. And you eventually got tired of cooking for everyone. But is that still true? Is it still true that you can't get great Indian food in the U.S. in restaurants?
MJ: You can get decent food if you know where to go. And I would look into all those places in Queens, Jackson Heights, and all those places. Each place specializes in something, so you have to know where to go for that for this particular dish. And then you can collectively, from going to one place to another and another and another, have a good meal. I think that may be the best way to do it.
FL: Go on a progressive. It will be a beautiful afternoon.
FL: Many years ago, a dear friend of mine, actually an old girlfriend, was the first person who told me about you. And she told me about you because she, again, didn't grow up cooking in her home, left the home, went to college, and was making a life for herself in New York. And when she wanted to cook food, even simple foods that remind you of home, she learned from you. She learned from reading your books. All her friends were the same way. I remember her telling me that you were an actor and you have these amazing cookbooks and they all learn how to cook from you. Because you were the only person that she knew, the only cookbook writer that she knew. Now, in 2019, I look around and there is this extraordinary, exciting new generation of young Desi food writers: Tejal Rao, Priya Krishna, Sonia Chopra, Khushbu Shah, Mayukh Sen, you could go on and on.
FL: What do you think of this new generation?
MJ: I adore them, especially the ones you mentioned. They are wonderful writers, they are brave, they are bold, and they know who they are. When I came to this country, I never thought of myself as brown or any color; I just thought of myself as Indian. And this feeling that, “Look, I'm brown, I'm not with the whites, I have my own culture, I'm going to write what I feel like,” it just wasn't there. I was not allowed to write, say, about Italian food. No, no, somebody else can write about it. I wanted to do a world vegetarian book. They said, no, no, somebody else is doing it. A New York Times writer could go to India for one day for the first time and write two pages in The New York Times about Indian food, but I couldn't go to Italy, where I'd been 50 times to write about Italian food. There were these inbuilt pigeonholes, prejudices, whatever you want to call them.
What I love this new generation for, other than their own innate talent and brilliance, is that they don't take any guff from anyone. They are who they are. They say, “We are brown and we want in! We are American and we can write about anything we want to write about. They're writing books about what they eat. It doesn't matter what their parents ate. They are saying, this is what we can do, this is what we can manage on a daily basis. We can't make those things that you make; this is what we do. I think it's incredible. I love them from it.
There's another one like that in England. I have a representative filling in for me. When I see her I say, oh God, there she goes, she's just like me. Meera Sodha. She writes for The Guardian. They’re all writers as well. They’re not just cooks, but they’re smart researchers, they have it all. They have everything going for them. I think they're just amazing and wonderful, and I'm so glad they're there.
FL: Yeah, me too. And I look forward to the future they'll make.
MJ: Yes. And they will. They're writing about contemporary stuff, what they've seen, and their lives. It needs to be done, and they're doing it so well.
FL: Thank you for paving the way. It was amazing to spend the time with you.
MJ: Thank you very much.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.