An Interview with Madhur Jaffrey

It’s not every day that you get a chance to interview an award-winning actress, chef, cookbook author, and grandmother: Madhur Jaffrey is all this and more.

Her most recent cookbook, “At Home with Madhur Jaffrey” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), is further testament to her ability to make Indian cuisine approachable to the American home cook, filled with “simple, delectable dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.”

I spoke with Madhur after her recent return from a writer’s conference in New Zealand; she is on the move again, this week to the Chicago area in support of the America India Foundation (AIF) charity. The AIF is dedicated to catalyzing social and economic change in India, a goal that is near and dear to Madhur’s heart.

Can you tell me a little bit about why you are here to support the AIF?

A lot of the money that they raise goes for education. For example, it goes to support migrant workers who might be working on sugar plantations, or brick makers, whose children can’t be educated because they’re always on the move. They are providing means for this. I was very attracted to this education for kids. That is India’s greatest need.

Where do you like to eat when you travel? Do you frequent local Indian restaurants, or are you looking for something else?
I don’t want to be damaging to a restaurant in anyway, so when I’m travelling, I don’t tend to eat Indian.

What do you think about some of the new restaurant trends, like molecular gastronomy?
I come from a poor country where food is valued and the important values of food are its health-gaining, religious, medicinal, social, nutritious and cultural aspects. When you break food up into parts, it takes all context of the importance of food away. That said, if it were delicious, I would eat it. But I might not want to eat it again.

Sometimes I wonder, are we playing with food for the very rich? But it also excites young people, and gives chefs something to explore. But it’s not really my cup of tea.

Are you still involved in Dawat, the fabulous Indian restaurant in Manhattan?

Yes, I still supervise the menu, and I’m always thinking about new things. My arrangement is to teach and train the chefs my recipes, and to keep an eye on things.

Preparing Indian cuisine can be complicated; many steps, many ingredients. What is the subject of your newest cookbook?
Home cooking at its simplest and techniques I’ve worked out to make it a little simpler. In a typical meat curry, you must separately brown veggies, spices, meats, etc. But if I marinate all the ingredients together overnight and braise it in the oven, I’m eliminating so many steps and making it easier. Everyone has an oven; everyone has a refrigerator. Anyone can cook from this book.

So for our typical reader, who is trying to balance work and home without eating out every night?
I’m trying to make traditional Indian foods with newer techniques to make them simpler. We do all work. These techniques, I’ve been trying to work them out for 15 years. You don’t want to sacrifice the taste. These are the conclusions I’ve come up with.

Have you been using the recipes yourself? What do you recommend?
I love the soups in the book. My daughter has a cold, so I’m making her the Red Pepper Soup with Ginger and Fennel. The ginger is very good. It has those nice spices. For Indians, these are all medicinal things. So if you’re feeling a little under the weather, this is a great soup. A simple first course. I also love the Salmon in Bengalli Mustard Sauce or Sri Lankan Fish Curry for an entrée.

I understand your latest film had a food theme.
Yes, “Today’s Special” came out last year. It’s about a young Indian man who wants to be a chef. They filmed it in Manhattan and Queens, so that was convenient for me. I played the mother of Asasif Mandvi, the young man from The Daily Show. He was the screenwriter as well.

Any words of wisdom for MIB readers using your cookbook?
Marinate the night before, and then throw it in the oven. So simple. And remember, not everything has to be Indian. Maybe make a simple pork chop with the spicy Indian Potato Chaat or another of the side dishes. That way you still get the Indian flavor.

Madhur Jaffrey will be appearing at The Book Stall on Saturday, May 28 at 11 am, an event sponsored by the American India Foundation. Call the Book Stall for more information.