She’s best known to the world as a writer of Indian food books, however, as Madhur Jaffrey tells Michele Kayal, her first love is the theatre

Madhur Jaffrey is known worldwide as an author of Indian cookbooks. And with good reason: she has written more than two dozen of them.

But that's just the start. The woman often called "the Julia Child of Indian cookery" was born in Delhi, India, and moved to the United States in the late 1950s, eventually landing among the New York glitterati. She started her career as an actress - something she continues to do - but soon found herself deeply rooted in the world of food. She has hosted cooking shows both there and in Britain, and helped launch the renowned New York Indian restaurant, Dawat.

Now 82, her latest book is Vegetarian India: A Journey Through The Best Of Indian Home Cooking.

We talk to her about how she became involved in food writing.


MK: What was the impetus for Vegetarian India? Why this book and why now?

Madhur Jaffrey: I've never done a book that's all Indian and all vegetarian. There are many areas of India that I don't know and many cuisines I don't know, and I thought this would be a good way to learn about the cuisines I don't know anything about.

MK: When you came to the United States in the late 1950s, you landed first in Vermont, where you taught pantomime. How did that happen?

Jaffrey: I needed a job. I was in the theatre and was very kindly employed by the Catholic University theatre team. They said "Why don't you come in the summer and work with our summer stock company?" in Winooski, Vermont. I joined the company to do odd jobs with them. And get a visa.

MK: And from there you went to New York City. What were you hoping to find there?

Jaffrey: The theatre brought me to New York. [My first husband] Saeed [Jaffrey] also studied at Catholic University. He graduated and came to New York and I came with him. I was working as a guide at the United Nations at the time, and doing theatre, off-Broadway. The way I could stay to have a visa was by working at the UN. Then I could do theatre, for which I was earning something like $10 a week.

MK: You and Saeed also introduced Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the famous film duo. How did that come about?

Jaffrey: We were the only Indian actors in town at that time. Ivory had just done his first film - it was a short film - called The Sword and the Flute, about Indian miniature paintings. And he needed someone to narrate that. He went to see Saeed's play and asked him to do it. That's how Saeed brought him home for the first time. We all became very good friends.

Around the same time, Ismail Merchant was here, studying at [New York University] business school. He met us because he had dreams of doing theatre, films, anything. He just wanted to be famous. He wasn't sure how he was going to be famous, but it was going to be in the world of film and theatre. His first idea was to get an Indian dancer and have her perform at Radio City Music Hall.

His dreams were so big. And, to us, ridiculous. But to him, everything was achievable. He brought that spirit of great adventure and far-sightedness to our little group.

MK: I imagine the Indian community in New York was very small at that time. Did everyone know each other? What was it like?

Jaffrey: All those [Indians] who came were doctors and statisticians and engineers. America wasn't taking people who weren't these things because that wasn't what was needed. We were very rare, these people in the arts. We knew all the people in the arts because that's where our interest lay. We knew the Indians who were around and other people who were actors but weren't Indians. It was an intellectual bookish, artish world.

MK: Were you fully embraced by the non-Indian art scene?

Jaffrey: As curiosities, yes. But as somebody to give work to, no. It was very hard to get work. That's why we needed other jobs, all of us. I am in the art world; I have one daughter who's an actress, one who is a writer. The actress daughter has the same problem I did. But she is two steps ahead. Indians now are more in shows. People are writing more parts for Indians and they can play non-Indians.

In House of Cards, my daughter played a Latino. [In my time] they never thought of us as secretaries or lawyers. We were just Indians, and always the sheiky types, coming vaguely from the Middle East.

MK: You once told the BBC you wanted to be the next Marlon Brando. What did that mean?

Jaffrey: Everybody dreams of saying "Thank you so much for the Academy Award." But I left India with dreams of being another Marlon Brando. I adored his method of acting and I adored him. I had met him in India when he was passing through. I thought, "I want to have that intensity, that depth." That you go into a part and you really find it inside you, and it comes out in this glorious rich form that it did with Marlon Brando. But there wasn't the opportunity. There just wasn't.

MK: How and why did you transition from theatre to cooking?

Jaffrey: I was getting divorced. I had three little kids. I had no future. English literature was my major in college. I could write.

I started writing about any subject that was wanted. Then one day, Holiday Magazine, which was a big magazine at that time, hired me to do a story about what I ate as a child in India. I did the story.

I had just done the [Merchant-Ivory] film Shakespeare Wallah, so my name was about. Then New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne did an article about me. That was Ismail's doing. He had the ability to get to know anybody. He must have walked up to him at some point and said, "You must do an article about this woman who appears in my wonderful film." After that things took off.

MK: You've published roughly 30 cookbooks. But you've never really stopped acting. You've appeared in film, television, on stage, and you're still acting today. Are you an actor who cooks, or a cook who acts?

Jaffrey: I always say, "I'm an actress who cooks." I see myself as an actress.

MK: How do you think others see you?

Jaffrey: Totally differently. Some people say, "Oh you still act?" They're not aware of that aspect of my life.

- Canvas, AP