I'm from Delhi. But I'm not Punjabi. Not everyone from Delhi is Punjabi," said actor-author-cooking expert Madhur Jaffrey, smiling. Somehow, at the back of my mind, I knew what that smile meant but I waited for her to finish the sentence. "I'm a Kayastha."
As I said, I knew what the smile meant. As a Kayastha, I've struggled to answer this query myself. In India, while it's easy for Muslims, Sikhs and Christians to identify themselves, the Hindus with their various castes and sub-castes find it a little tougher. And Kayasthas cannot even be classified as one of the leading four castes — Brahmins (the learned), Kshatriyas (the warriors), Vaishyas (tradesmen) and Shudras (the outcasts). We are defined better as the historical "intellectual class" comprising lawyers, bookkeepers and the artistically inclined who served the rulers and rich of the day.
Jaffrey, nee Bahadur, was born into an illustrious family that traces its lineage directly to the Finance Minister of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, which she mentions in her childhood memoirs Climbing The Mango Trees. However, Jaffrey says she was quite reluctant to write them.
"I was pushed to write them by my editor in England. I didn't want to write about my life because I feel it's too messy. However, we compromised. I said I'll write about it till the age of 21. However, I ended up writing only till I was 18."
While studying English literature from Miranda House, Delhi University (another thing we had in common, I found later), she was actively involved in dramatics and went on to graduate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Her love for the art led her to an extremely successful partnership with filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. With them she made movies such as Shakespeare Wallah, which won her much appreciation as an actress and the Silver Bear as the Best Actress at the International Film Festival at Berlin in 1965. She has also worked in various plays and has been popular on British TV.
However, the septuagenarian has been best known for her bestselling cookbooks, even though she "did not even know how to make tea or rice" till she crossed her teens.
"I was what you would call ‘a late bloomer'. I started cooking in my twenties, when in London. I was craving good Indian food so I wrote to my mother for the recipes for three dishes — simple, but they were a start. From there I began experimenting, trying till I got it right. And I never stopped."
With acting, writing and cooking all being creative processes, what does she think brings them together?
"Me," she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Witty and housewife-y
It's hard to decipher whether Jaffrey is a better chef or actor. She kept the 300-strong crowd attending her cooking demonstration at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai enthralled as much with her witty remarks as with her cooking style, which reminded me so much of my mother — the way she mixed spices into meat with bare hands and measured salt on her palm.
"I don't call myself a chef because I never wear a hat. Neither do I cook professionally in a restaurant," she said, laughing. "I'm a home cook and I like recipes that are housewife-y. I love the kind of food people cook every day — not too rich. So I just call myself a cook". Yet she's the most popular Indian cookery writer in the Western world.
"Writing cookbooks came as a boon from heaven. I didn't plan it. I'd just started on my own and didn't even know how to cook. I was an actress who was looking for odd jobs to earn some money. My mother, family and friends kept sending me recipes and I kept making them. And that's why I think my books do so well because I write them for people like myself who may not know how to cook — by explaining in detail how it is done."
Her latest book, Curry Easy, which she introduced at the festival, is different from previous ones because it looks at simpler ways to cook Indian food.
"It reflects what I've been working on over the last 15-20 years — how do I get the same lovely taste of Indian food but cook it in a much easier way so everyone can go for it and cook it quickly. Time-wise it's easier because these recipes give you the freedom to start and then go watch TV or read a book and come back when it's done — though some things, such as dal and meat, will take their time to cook. Now, yes, people are eating out much more than before because husbands are working, wives are working. But if I can give them recipes that they can make very quickly, then they will cook.
"As for spices, I would say it simplifies only to an extent as I wouldn't give up certain spices, such as hing or asafoetida, which people don't necessarily know. You can't leave it out because it's key to the taste of Indian food. And it's medicinal in nature. Indian food doesn't just fill your stomach. It is food that's good for mind, body and soul, and those aspects come from your mother and grandmother. You don't study them"
But how much can one write about food?
"Oh, it's endless. Time is teaching you constantly, you are learning new things, new ways to do things, new recipes. It's like India. How much ever you travel, it's not enough. No one can say I know Indian food because nobody does — there's so much in it".
"The essence of Indian food is the magical uses of spices and seasonings," says Madhur Jaffrey. "Nobody has mastered spices as Indians have. We can use one spice in so many different ways - we can roast them, we can put them in hot oil, we can grind them with vinegar - we can bring out ten different flavours from every spice. That's our magic".
Five essentials in the pantry
"Dal, rice, wheat to make bread, one green and a few spices - I could live on these."
“Your palate judges everything, so follow it. And if anyone says Indian food is not good or healthy, tell them to take a walk. What you get in restaurants is not the real thing. Our food is not just flavourful and aromatic but medicinal too – what with the different spices we use”.
Essence of Indian food
“The essence of Indian food is the magical uses of spices and seasonings,” says Madhur Jaffrey. “Nobody has mastered spices as Indians have. We can use one spice in so many different ways – we can roast them, we can put them in hot oil, we can grind them with vinegar – we can bring out ten different flavours from every spice. That’s our magic”.
“I don’t have any. Your moods are different on different days. But if I had to eat the same thing every day it would be moong dal and basmati rice. I’ve eaten everything from dog, cat, mice – you name it and I’ve had it. For me it’s necessary to taste the food of a place to understand its culture. I want to know what makes the locals’ palates tick”.