Her memoir, Climbing The Mango Trees is one of my favourites and words will never be enough to describe how much I adore and respect her and how she continues to inspire me and thousands of people across the globe.
Madhur Jaffrey; a food and travel writer, hosts of several cooking shows, award winning actor and someone who has taught the world to appreciate, eat and cook curry (a word she actually dislikes but more on that later!).
It’s been a little over a week that I met her (I am still pinching myself) at the Emirates Litfest for a one on one ahead of a thought provoking and engaging panel discussion where she along with Claudia Roden (another one of my food heroes…pinch! pinch! But about that in another post) and Mark Kurlansky came together to talk about how the food on our plate has its own story to tell. Litfest is an event that both my little chefling and I look forward to each year and I can’t thank the team enough for making this conversation with Madhur Jaffrey possible.
But what I took back from that Friday evening when I got the opportunity to speak to her on her childhood memories centered around food, of course, how it is so essential for children to be open to tasting everything even if they don’t eat it and to learn how to cook, was much more than the knowledge that legends like her have and share. It was her grace, her elegance, her hunger to learn and make a difference, her passion and enthusiasm for everything and so much more. I came back thinking I want to be like her when I am 80:)
Without further ado, in conversation with Madhur Jaffrey; “an actor who also likes to cook”.
What are your some of your most precious childhood memories?
The first memories that come to my mind are certainly of eating and tasting delicious food. There is this story that I tell in my book about the mangoes. I think that is one of my first or early memories, of climbing that mango tree with those green mangoes. Just plucking them off and peeling them and taking some salt, pepper and little chilli powder and roasted cumin, all mixed, that we used to keep in the house and dipping those slices of raw mangoes, oh it makes my mouth water even now! It’s the combination of those tastes, the sour, the hot and the salt, it’s the memories of those things that one ate as a child and became sort of permanent things to yearn for, and permanent tastes to look for in my life.
It’s true. Whenever I eat mangoes I find myself thinking of those happy summer days when my mum would make my sister and me sit out in the balcony with those juicy mangoes that would be floating in a bucket of cold water. Our mouths full with all that juice and our clothes and fingers sticky 🙂 So when you were writing this book, was it usually the taste memory that came to you first or was it the memory of an event that came first which was followed by the taste of what you enjoyed then?
I think it was always a mix. Like when I write about the picnics, it’s also the picnic that was important but then especially in the mountains when we went to Shimla and places like that, it was the memory of putting those mangoes out there in the stream to cool them that comes first and that’s when I start thinking about that particular picnic and other memories associated with it. Those streams were icy cold and we used to put the mangoes in at the beginning of the meal and by the time we were finished eating the food and we got to those chausini mangoes they were cold and we took the top off and sucked the juice out, the juice would dribble down your chin. It’s a visual memory but it’s also a taste memory.
I nod in agreement and think about those numerous picnics we went to with our cousins who lived in Solan, where we would plop the watermelon into the water (inside a huge bag, tied the bag to a rope and that in turn was fastened to pole alongside the Renuka lake), finish our barbeque and then later enjoy the cold and red watermelon slices with some kala namak. Or those picnics at Sadhupul, where bags and bags of chause mangoes awaited us after all the splashing and playing in the stream and best enjoyed while sitting right there in the stream. We were always surrounded by delicious memories; more of eating than really cooking it and that’s what led me to my next question.
As a little girl, at least in our family, the focus had always been (much as it sounds very odd) on studying and playing and helping with some chores around the house but we were never really encouraged to go to the kitchen. Was it the same for you? And if yes, how did this journey around cooking food begin?
It happened very accidentally. We too never went into the kitchen. In fact my mother went in only for special dishes that were made for festivals. We had cooks who were doing the day to day cooking but when I left India and went to England suddenly there was no cook, there was just me and the food outside was terrible! So that’s when it started for me. I realized the only way I can get my hands on my hing jeer ke allu was if I cooked them myself because it is not available anywhere. So then I began to write to my mother asking her how do you make this and how do you make that. She wrote back these little notes which really had these three line, very simple recipes and I started making them. So I was reading them and making them.
Do you still have some of those precious notes?
I do, in fact I used one of them as the end cover for one of my books.
So what were some of those things that you missed the most when you first landed there?
Hing jeer ke allu, of course!
But had you been at home do you think you would have gotten into cooking?
Probably not. I would have been like everyone else in the family. Everyone appreciated good food. In fact whenever there was a wedding, you know how it is, people come, the caterers come and they set up tents they cook in your house. But my father would always go in, sort of to supervise and wanted to make sure everything was just right. The gobhi being made or the masalas being used, so he had a keen interest in it obviously. So that’s where even I would have been, in the supervising capacity.
But I was forced to cook, since there was no other alternative. To eat it, I had to make it. So that’s how it started and then I didn’t choose to write a cookbook. I was asked to write one. I had done a film, won a best actress award and then the NY Times did a piece on me, “the actress who also likes to cooks”. So all these things led to writing. I never chose it.
Sometimes the opportunity comes along, I didn’t let that opportunity go. I used it.
This memoir happened and it sort of stopped at your childhood. Did you ever think about writing another memoir, your life after, say eighteen?
No, this was hard enough. In fact I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to write about my family because it was all very complicated. Also, by this time I had done films and I was constantly being interviewed and they would ask very personal questions and I would answer them. But, then my kids started saying why did you talk about us? Don’t talk about us. I never thought about it that way. I may be a public person but they are not. So when my editor said you must do a food memoir, I said yes but I also said that I’d like to stop it at eighteen. Because, I didn’t want to expose other people and didn’t want to hurt them.
I agree, it’s a constant challenge even when simply blogging and/or are present on social media. How much to share and what to share? My daughter and I love to cook together but then should I restrict it to just the picture of the food and what we made or is it alright to mention the funny conversation that happened between us while we were cooking? Actually while on this, though you didn’t really cook while growing up but were your children active in the kitchen?
They all cook. My three daughters cook very well. My grandchildren cook very well too and nobody was taught how to cook. Whenever someone asks them did you learn to cook from her, their answer is always a big no! She didn’t teach us, she just kept saying do this, and do that and chop this and stir this and they learnt from there. But then interestingly, when they went to college, each one of them asked me for a certain recipe that they liked.
So have you ever thought about writing a cookbook that has all the precious recipes that your children and grandchildren love?
I haven’t, but I have included a lot of them in a lot of my cookbooks. But l have to share that not only can my grand-kids cook but they love food just like me. They keep exploring new places to eat, try out new types of food and they talk very knowledgeably. When they were little, the three of them would sit on a couch and they would not watch cartoons and they would watch food shows. I remember my little granddaughter when she was like 3 or 4 telling her brother, “no that is not a sauce it’s a ganache”!
So what would be your advice to parents? Because parents get very intimidated with the idea of getting kids into the kitchen. Because to be honest, a meal that can be ready in 15 to 20 minutes can take an hour with them around and there is going to be mess. So the easier option seems to be doing it on our own or sometimes the children are not really interested and it doesn’t feel okay to push them. Your children of course have grown up being surrounded by food but how can a parent who is not so much into food encourage their children to get into the kitchen?
I think the first thing is that children do what you do. So if you cook, they will. It doesn’t matter what you cook. Also, I never told them to finish everything on the plate. Instead they were asked to taste everything. And for years they said we don’t like this and we don’t like that. So I would tell them, taste it and leave it. But, by the time they were 13 -14 they were eating everything because they were used to tasting everything. Also, I cooked food from all over the world and they do the same. So my kids and grand-kids never even realized that Mexican food was different, Italian food was different, or Japanese was different than Indian food. So they accepted it because they grew up eating everything, all their lives. So just open their eyes to different cuisines. Take them out if you don’t cook it at home. And when you cook different things, point out stuff so they can get away from being narrow minded. By doing this, you are opening their world, a world of people and food who are different from them. And I am all for that.
You just mentioned that they would make faces and not like certain things. As a kid were there certain foods that you absolutely did not like on your plate?
No, you know, most kids hate certain things but I always had things I loved more than the others things on my plate. I loved everything that was gooey. I loved bhindi, I loved urad dal, both mushy.
Your parents were really lucky! I guess when you come from a family where you were constantly exposed to different foods and hence your children and grandchildren were and are, eating never felt like a task.
Yes, plus it was always take what you want from the table but there wasn’t anything that I hated on the table, just things I liked more.
Like curries, perhaps 🙂 I know you have written so much about curries, so which are some of your favorite curries? Those you like more than others.
I don’t even want to call it curry even though I have written so much on curries but if you can’t beat them just join them. But my whole battle has been don’t call everything a curry! I like everything. I like the sort of very Muslim preparations which are had in homes across India and Pakistan, I love the coconutty ones from the southern part of India. I love the fried fish kind of ones from our western coast, I love all good things. Anything well made, like a simple dosa. Simple is good.
True, so then what do you feel about molecular gastronomy, fusion food and how we are adding drama around food; particularly Indian food?
I think we have to go through all of this and what has happened is, that India is lucky enough to have had the time to evolve. Time does its own thing and what we are going to end up with who knows but when I eat this molecular stuff or fusion tiny meal, actually all our food is fusion. We never had potatoes or tomatoes but we made it Indian so that process hasn’t happened with the fusions that are happening today. When I eat in some of the better fusion restaurants, currently it’s not food. I come back unsatisfied thinking, nice taste and nice idea but khana nahi hai woh!
I sort of agree but then there are also some beautiful things happening around us. A lot of focus is currently on making school gardens, edible yards and teaching children how to use that produce, etc. What do you think about that? Do you have a food garden?
I grew up with it but my kids didn’t know how to pick a good vegetable from a bad one. I knew it because we grew them and observed it at every stage till it started decaying. We saw the signs of decaying at every stage, when it started and when it was upswing and my kids didn’t grow with that because we didn’t have a lot of money to set a garden when we were starting out in NY. But I have a garden now. I grow all my vegetables. Growing season is less than six months there but in that season I grow everything. I preserve as much as I can. I freeze my tomatoes and my peas. I grow my own berries, herbs, everything.
It’s a huge garden and we are just two, so the kids now participate in the bounty but sadly they are not around when we are growing them since they are all away, married and with their families. So they do miss out on this and we miss them too.
And at this note, we say goodbye. I think of my mum, miles always waiting all year round for her children to come home and make them their favourite food, saving preserves and pickles that she has lovingly made for us to take back home and all those herbs from her little terrace garden that she has dried and packed for us to savour throughout the year. Yes, we miss out on this and they miss us too.
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