January 30, 2023
In Shakespeare Wallah (1965), a statuesque Madhur Jaffrey plays Manjula — the jilted ex-lover of Sanju, a baby-faced Shashi Kapoor. Manjula first appears in a sheer, floor-length dress with black lingerie underneath and sky-high heels, applying mascara onto her signature kohl-lined eyes. She then goes into a frenzy upon learning that her household help witnessed Sanju (Kapoor) kissing a fair-skinned woman. “Bring her to me,” Manjula tells her helper in sign language, seething. What ensues is a fiery love triangle between Sanju, Lizzie, and a delightful, if, ferocious, Manjula.
If you grew up eating Indian food or have ever purchased an Indian cookbook, odds are you’ve heard the name Madhur Jaffrey more than once, predictably followed by a litany of reverence. Jaffrey, 89, standing at about 5’ tall, has the presence of a behemoth. She speaks with purpose rather than impulse — in short, incisive sentences with a British cadence that commands your attention. All this makes sense given her dozens of acting credits (48) and countless books on food, more than the number of spice jars in your kitchen (44).
Most people agree that Jaffrey was the first to introduce Indian food to the West, presenting mirch and masala in a way they could understand and with unwavering patience. Yet, Jaffrey tells me, “I was never the first!” She continued, “I just saw myself as someone who loved to cook. And because I couldn’t get acting work, I began freelance writing.”
While earlier Indian American cookbooks, such as Dharam Jit Singh’s Classic Cooking from India (1956) and Santha Rama Rau’s The Cooking of India (1969) dispelled grotesque myths — that all Indian food is not “curry” — Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973) sought a less poetic and more pragmatic approach. In the 1970s, while some Americans had begun frequenting Indian eateries, the idea that Indian food was suitable for — or worthy of — American homes was unthinkable. With her exhaustive instructions, Jaffrey seeded, arguably for the first time, the idea that cooking Indian food in American kitchens was something people wanted to and could do.