Madhur Jaffrey, award-winning actor and best-selling author, loves dal.
Story by Priya Chopra
If she had just one last meal on Earth, Madhur Jaffrey would opt for a good dal or some kind of noodles. “Definitely something soft that slithers down. Even if you are nervous about dying (which I am not), the food would go down easily.”
The ever so practical Madhur Jaffrey has built a career that straddles two creative realms: food and film. She is the author of many cookbooks, six of which have won the James Beard Award, and is also an award-winning actress with a number of international and Indian films and television series to her credit.
Madhur Jaffrey is in Toronto for TIFF’s special Food on Film series, where she will screen her 2009 comedy, Today’s Special (also starring Aasif Mandvi and Naseeruddin Shah) which explores the delicious connection between cooking and culture.
Jugni Style spoke with the culinary impresario about food, film and family.
What is your most vivid food memory from growing up in Delhi?
Everything. The food in Delhi is marvellous. From non-veg to veg. My grandmother was vegetarian. My father and all the men in the house ate meat and cooked in a very Mughlai style. So we had these 2 styles of cooking: a very vegetarian style and a very Muslim, meat and rice/biryani/pilau style. And then all the street food in Delhi in those days was absolutely marvellous and very typical of Delhi. There were all kinds of pani puri type things which we called “bataashe” filled with water. We had different names for everything. We had dahi badas – excellent dahi badas – these were all excellent local chats that we could get. If you went to the Jama Masjid, you got wonderful kababs and lovely breads. Breads with names like Bakarkhani that were just gorgeous, gorgeous, breads. And you went to the other side, sort of the Hindu side, and you got this lovely berwis/puris stuffed with potatoes and other vegetables, which you could get in the street. And they were all being fried and sold in the street. All these memories fill my mind.
And especially the other thing was that we grew up in a large house, which was an old orchard. So there were a lot of fruit trees. My first memory is getting various kinds of fruit (peaches, ber, tamarinds or mangoes for that matter) from the garden.
TIFF’s Food on Film Series brings together culinary experts and brilliant cinema. How was it to have the two worlds collide?
In Today’s Special, I am here as an actress, and I am not cooking. In this particular film, they actually hired somebody to prepare the food. They needed a food expert to be hired for every scene, even for scenes that I wasn’t in. They hired someone else as the food authority. If you notice, I myself do no cooking, they had one scene where I was supposed to be making samosas. In the end, they ran out of time to film the scene. I never actually cook in the film.
What path did you take to become an actor?
I think it was just happenstance. I acted in school starting at the age of 5. I kept acting all the way through school. Then I got to college, and I was acting in college plays. Then, when I left college, I was also acting in amateur theatre. It just became something I loved and enjoyed doing. I realized it was a profession, and you could actually make money being an actor and I could do it as a profession. I decided to train as an actress and attend the Royal Academy. I think that is the path that led me in this direction.
You bring a lot of wisdom and experience to the cinema world and cuisine.
Oh God (laughing). I don’t feel that wise. I can only tell you my own preferences. I like simple, home cooked food. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like a complicated biryani. My preferences are for home cooked, real food. I think you can experiment with spices and seasonings and get marvellous new things all the time. I do it myself all the time, but I like the flavour of real food. When I finish the meal, I like to feel satisfied.
There are a lot of new experiments with food. I go along with them to a degree. I think they are wonderful. People should experiment. I think the tried and true flavours of real foods are so important to me, like simple rice and daal (lentils). If well cooked, there is nothing like that for me. I like the authentic flavour of real foods. I include experimenting in that, but as long as the flavour is satisfying in the mouth and fulfilling in some way. Otherwise I am left half-satisfied.
What keeps you energized every day?
I think it’s something you are born with. I am not physically a very strong person at all. I think it’s a mental energy – it’s either that you are born with it or your determination makes you want to finish things and do them as best as you possibly can. I think that comes from inside all of us somewhere.
Your daughter Sakina Jaffrey has done some fantastic roles, including on House of Cards. Did you encourage her to enter the world of acting, or is it something she observed?
I wanted my daughters, (like all mothers) to be doctors and lawyers and to make money. None of them did that. My eldest daughter is a writer and teaches in college. My middle daughter teaches drama and music in school. My youngest daughter, Sakina, is an actress and doing wonderfully well. They are all terrific at what they do, and they all do things that are fairly similar to what I do. And I have no say in the matter, they chose what they wanted to do. I would have happily led them in other directions, but they were not to be led at all.
What is next for you?
I have a new book I have just finished, which is in the edition stages. It is a vegetarian Indian cookbook that will coming out in the UK this fall and perhaps in the US next spring.
Are there any secret recipes that you would just not be willing to share with anyone?
Not at all! I am totally the opposite. It needs to be shared. Why should you die withholding information? The world needs to know – if they are great dishes, the world needs to know. You must pass them on as they are. In my books, I tell everything I know. I don’t always know everything, but what I do know, I like to pass it on. I want people to cook well and say “This dish is so wonderful.” Whatever I know, I have passed on. I don’t think people should hold anything back.
Learn more Madhur Jaffrey-isms on Wednesday April 9 at 6:30 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre at 350 King Street West | tiff.net
Story By: Priya Chopra | Photography: TIFF