At 86, this grandma raps, writes cookbooks, and acts – meet the inimitable Madhur Jaffrey

Age is just a number for the versatile Madhur Jaffrey who still acts, writes cookbooks, and even raps. In a conversation with HerStory, she talks about food, veganism, and trying new things.
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Madhur Jaffrey is no stranger to the worlds of acting and cookbooks. The first author to take Indian cuisine to Western audiences through innumerable cookbooks, she showed the world there’s more to our food than chicken tikka masala with her first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, in 1973. This was followed by a dozen other cookbooks, three of which focused on vegetarian cuisine.

A versatile actor who has been part of theatre, films, and TV series, Madhur played an important part in bringing together filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, and acted in several of their films like Shakespeare Wallah, for which she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress award at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival.

Madhur Jaffrey. Image courtesy: Official Twitter handle

She also appeared in Six Degrees of Separation, Vanya on 42nd Street, and Prime. She also starred in ABCD, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and others.

Last year, she teamed up with Zohran Mamdani (director Mira Nair’s son) for a rap video, proving age is no barrier for what you want to do in life.

On the sidelines of the Jaipur Lit Fest, HerStory spoke to Madhur Jaffrey on her new cookbook centred on the Instant Pot, her acting careers, and veganism.

HerStory: Your Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook: Modern and Classic Recipes for the Instant Pot released last year was an instant hit, so to say? It’s quite different from your other cookbooks. Was it a conscious choice to write for the new generation?

Madhur Jaffrey: It’s simpler than that. I was to start on a new TV series in Los Angeles and my publisher wanted me to finish the book before I got busy on that. Though I argued I had very little time and had to learn a new script, they insisted and so I went ahead and did it.

HS: Was your approach to the book different from the others you have done?

MJ: It was quick and there was not too much to say. For me, the main thing for to learn to master the pot, and I had to do that by learning the instructions and thereafter using my instincts to come up with recipes that would suit the Instant Pot.

HS: The Instant Pot trend is huge, especially with the new generation that seems to have very little time to enter the kitchen.

MJ: Right. Also, they don’t eat in the old way: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They snack, and this is very much influenced by Mexican, where you can wrap anything in a tortilla on the go. I won’t say they don’t like to cook, but they organise their time differently; they don’t want to give it time. I work full-time as well but I give myself at least an hour to make dinner.

HS: What kind of recipes have you included in the book?

MJ: It’s all India, with food from all over the country that could work in an Instant Pot, like an egg curry or dal, or fish if you are very careful. I have devised techniques based on my experiments. I’m glad it’s selling well.

HS: You wrote your first cookbook in 1973. How has cooking evolved over the years?

MJ: It hasn’t changed much for me. My style of writing hasn’t changed much, I know that. But I have tried to simplify the recipes as I also have less time and am working like other people. For example, I always think of how I can speed up the process? I add the masalas to the meat and let it sit, then saute the garlic, onions, and add to the meat that has been marinating. And it’s worked quite well.

HS: You were also the first Indian to introduce real Indian food to a Western audience. Do you think the perception of Indian food has changed beyond chicken tikka masala?

MJ: Chicken tikka masala is still the top seller in England. But I think the dosa has always done well. I have brought in dishes from other states like the prawn dish from Kerala, the chicken with hara dhania (coriander), and all these have become quite popular. My three vegetarian cookbooks are also bestsellers.

HS: What do you say about vegetarianism and veganism gaining ground all over the world?

MJ: I must say veganism is gaining round. There is a lot of allergy too – of different kinds of grains. Non-gluten has become very big in the US, and rightly so, because the quality of wheat is not the same anymore. I am also mostly vegetarian; I don’t eat too much meat.

HS: Tell us about what’s happening in your acting career?

MJ: I worked on a TV series, a couple of films, and the rap video. The Queens rapper, Zohran Mamdani aka Mr Cardamom, sent word that he would like me act in a rap video. So I thought why not. I had a great time doing Nani, mouthing lines that were “quite different”.

HS: You have always spoken about the need for actors to be versatile.

MJ: That’s what we as actors do. How can you be an actor if you can’t do different roles?

HS: You have also said that acting in films made you politically aware. In the current scenario, can actors choose to be apolitical?

MJ: Some of them choose to be because they want to work, to survive. They clearly are on one or the other side, especially in American. After a while, of course, you can’t stand it anymore.

HS: Do you like the way food is perceived via social media… the fad of always taking photos before actually eating the food?

MJ: I am not that much into social media but my children are. I write on a computer and use social media to get information, but I don’t use it the way young people do.

HS: At 86, you lead a full life, and exemplify age is just a number.

MJ: Age is just a number. If your mind is working, your life also is, as everything is up there.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)