Recently, Francis Lam sat down for a long visit with Madhur Jaffrey at her home. During their conversation, Madhur told Francis how much the new generation of Indian food writers excites her. We decided that we'd like to hear from one of those writers about how Madhur inspired them. Priya Krishna is a writer for the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and author, with her mother Ritu, of the cookbook Indian-ish. She sat down with Managing Producer Sally Swift to reflect on the impact that Madhur Jaffrey has had on Indian and Indian American food writers.
Sally Swift: We have just spent an hour with Madhur Jaffrey, which was incredibly delightful. She talks a little bit about this new guard of South Asian writers that are coming up, and you are one of them. We wanted to talk to you about what Madhur has been for you in your professional life.
Priya Krishna: To put it simply, my cookbook would not exist without her cookbook. I think a lot about the fact that Madhur was edited by Judith Jones, and to get the attention of an editor like Judith Jones as an Indian woman during that era, I just can't even imagine. Just the existence of An Invitation to Indian Cooking opened the floodgates for other South Asian writers to be given a chance to talk about their food to an American audience.
Priya Krishna Photo: Mackenzie Kelley
SS: Did you grow up with her? Is she someone that was in your family's household?
PK: Definitely. Madhur is from the same part of India that my family is from and her trajectory in terms of learning to cook was somewhat similar to my mom. She is someone my mom always talked to me about and someone she admired and looked up to. She was definitely someone whose mythology was in our family from an early time.
SS: She's such a combination of things with the acting and the food; she's just such a stylish woman. But I also think she's a stylish writer. Do you find that?
PK: I totally agree. There is this poetry about the way that she writes, this really amazing cadence. There are people like her who when I read their writing I'm like, I appreciate this writing and I will never be able to write like that. I have so much respect for what she's able to do with words. You almost feel like she's singing to you when she writes, and it's the same when she talks. I could hear her talk about Indian food history until the end of time.
SS: Her breadth of knowledge is amazing. Are there recipes of hers that you've relied on and that’ve taught you things that you needed to know?
PK: Yes! Basically, anything that she does involving dal or lentils I have loved. Before I was comfortable asking my mom for her recipes, I was turning to Madhur’s very basic dal recipes. She's from the same part of India that my family is, so her dal tends to taste like the dal that I had growing up. Another one that I really love and riff on is this beetroot tomato soup; it's like a soup slash sabzi that’s in her new book. It has cumin seeds and chilies and asafetida. It’s this sweet tangy stew that you can make during all seasons. It somehow feels seasonal in winter and it also feels seasonal in the summer. What's amazing about her recipes is that you can go back and read An Invitation to Indian Cooking and it still feels really modern; the recipes feel timeless. It’s just this amazing ability of hers to constantly put out books and almost reinvent her style and her aesthetic every time.
SS: And they all work, which is amazing. I mean, my An Invitation To Indian Cooking is an absolutely filthy, dirty book because I've used it so many times. [laughs] And I love that she's curious about the region as a whole. She dabbles into lots of different things in her life. Have you gotten time with her?
PK: Yeah. We spent quite a bit of time together. We first met when I was working on a story about her that never got published for Lucky Peach. I went over to her place for tea and I completely fell in love with her – it’s impossible not to. She’s so poised and hilarious and charming. We kept in touch, and she's friends with a bunch of other Indians that I'm friendly with who are part of my generation of food writers, so we've found ourselves crossing paths. I feel like all of us as South Asians in the food industry, we want everyone else to succeed. We're all supportive of one another.
SS: And she's certainly supportive of you guys. I think that's quite lovely. If you had to recommend one book for someone who has never done anything out of her books, which would you pick?
PK: It would either be An Invitation Indian Cooking or Vegetarian India. I think both of those books are awesome. I grew up in a mostly vegetarian household, so when I saw Vegetarian India I was like, this is my food! It’s the best possible things you can do with vegetables. And An Invitation Indian Cooking is a very good survey of Indian food beyond the stereotypes you'd find in an Indian restaurant.
PK: I’m amazed that at 85 she does not miss a beat. She’s so present in every conversation she has. She has the most perfect response to every question. We did a podcast together when my book was coming out and the parallels that she was able to draw between my book and her book made me realize that we're both writing for similar reasons: we both want Indian cooking to enter the mainstream. A part of me feels like, in many ways, Madhur was and is our best shot of that happening.
SS: I would say that she'd be very pleased to hear that. But I would also say that you are part of that too. You're going to get us cooking Indian as well.
PK: That's very nice. Thank you.
Priya Krishna wrote the cookbook Indian-ish with her mother Ritu Krishna. Photo: Mackenzie Kelley
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Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.