RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Food is at the heart of many traditions this time of year. And over the next few days, we'll look back on the lives of three chefs who have helped shape the way we cook and eat. It's part of our occasional series "The Long View," talking with people of long experience.
This morning, the queen of Indian home cookery. With dozens of cookbooks and TV shows in the U.S. and Britain, you'd think Madhur Jaffrey had planned for a life in the kitchen. In fact, her first love - and career choice - was acting. Early on, she was acclaimed for her star turn as a Bollywood diva in the 1965 Merchant Ivory film "Shakespeare Wallah."
(Soundbite of movie, "Shakespeare Wallah")
Ms. MADHUR JAFFREY (Cook, Actress): (as Manjula) I am Manjula. Where I go, hundreds, thousands follow me.
MONTAGNE: Over the years, millions have followed the cooking career of Madhur Jaffrey, and she traces that career back to when, at 19, she left her family's comfortable home in Delhi to study abroad at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Ms. JAFFREY: When I went to England, I had not thought about food. London had maybe two or three Indian restaurants and they were so standardized, homogenized, mollified Indian food - I don't even know how to describe it. But being a student and not having that much money - I was a scholarship student -and the canteen was on the fifth floor. And we would have to climb up these flights of stairs, and what would we get at the end of all this climbing? We'd get a - sort of slice of roast beef, which was gray; cabbage and potatoes that had been cooked for hours.
And I would look at it and I said, how can I eat this? And that's when I began the other dream - not the dream of coming to the West, but the dream of somehow re-creating that Indian food that I wanted so badly.
MONTAGNE: At the time, you didn't even know how to make the basics.
Ms. JAFFREY: I couldn't make tea. I mean, can you imagine? I couldn't make rice. I knew nothing. I had not gone into the kitchen to do anything because food - miraculously - always appeared at the table. But I got a sense of it very early on.
MONTAGNE: Not knowing anything about being able to re-create the Indian food that you loved - what, you starting writing home to your mother.
Ms. JAFFREY: Yes, yes.
MONTAGNE: A sort of culinary correspondence.
Ms. JAFFREY: I was writing to my mother anyway, and I said - you know - she is the one who can cook. So I began writing these desperate letters to her, to say, teach me how to cook. And I have answers from her, which start with, you know, an egg curry, hard-boiled egg curry, all the dishes that I thought maybe I can do - cauliflower and potatoes, simple meat dishes. And then how was I going to eat it; with what? I didn't know how to make rice, and that seemed very complicated.
So I lived in this neighborhood in London, and there was a wonderful Jewish bakery. So I discovered pumpernickel bread at that time, and I ate all my Indian food with pumpernickel bread.
MONTAGNE: Take us back to the Delhi of your childhood. This was before India was independent.
Ms. JAFFREY: Yes.
MONTAGNE: You grew up on what was a sort of family estate.
Ms. JAFFREY: Right.
MONTAGNE: Describe it for us; it sounds pretty magical.
Ms. JAFFREY: My ancestors worked in the mogul courts, and they were writers; they were translators; they were ministers.
MONTAGNE: And I think it would just help to tell - that was the Islamic empire.
Ms. JAFFREY: Islamic court.
MONTAGNE: That brought us the Taj Mahal.
Ms. JAFFREY: Exactly.
MONTAGNE: In terms of its beauty and its art.
Ms. JAFFREY: When their power began to wane, it was taken over by the British. And from serving the British, the British gave a whole lot of land to the family. And the land consisted of what was then a huge orchard with the wonderful, wonderful fruit. Lovely mulberries, all kinds of jujubes and mangoes, and just everything you want was outside your window.
MONTAGNE: What, then, did your family think when you told them you wanted to be an actress?
Ms. JAFFREY: I was the fifth child. So my father had two perfect sons; two perfect, pretty daughters; and then there was me. And my father rather enjoyed, I think, having this very odd child who was always interested in different things. So they all sort of indulged me. My father indulged me more, perhaps, than he would indulge his other kids. I think it had something to do with my position amongst the kids. And he just thought I was weird and interesting.
MONTAGNE: You know, I do know "Shakespeare Wallah," the part you played as a Bollywood star, your character, Manjula...
Ms. JAFFREY: Yes.
MONTAGNE: ...is beautiful, haughty, glamorous and very, very slender - as are you. And I must say, watching the film, one would never think of you with an apron on, in a kitchen - or in a cooking show. How...
MMs. JAFFREY: And I've resisted aprons, actually, until maybe this year. And I finally said to hell with it; I had better put on an apron because I'm ruining all my clothes. This is silly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: You know, there's this wonderful old clipping from the New York Times from 1966 - article written by Craig Claiborne.
Ms. JAFFREY: Oh, yes.
MONTAGNE: The headline is: Indian Actress is a Star in the Kitchen Too.
Ms. JAFFREY: Right.
MONTAGNE: You know, what did you think when you found yourself becoming famous as a cook and a food writer?
Ms. JAFFREY: I had trouble with that, and I have had trouble taking it seriously. But I consider both of them to be my professions now. But one was the one I sought and studied for, and the other dropped from heaven.
MONTAGNE: We have tape that we'd just like to play here...
Ms. JAFFREY: Uh-oh.
MONTAGNE: ...from the cooking series you did for the BBC. This one is 1982.
Ms. JAFFREY: Oh gosh, that was the first one, yeah.
MONTAGNE: "Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery."
(Soundbite of TV show, "Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery")
Ms. JAFFREY: In this series, I'm going to show you how to cook all kinds of Indian food. Some of it, you may be familiar with - the kind of food you've had in Indian restaurants - and some of it, you've probably never eaten. It's the kind of food you get in Indian homes. One of the things I'm going to make it Rogan Josh. This is a classical North Indian dish. I'm also going to show you how to cook cauliflower, potatoes...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Me, too. You know, hearing this tape now, nearly 30 years later, did you know what you had gotten yourself into?
Ms. JAFFREY: Not at all. I was told that this was an educational program. And this was the first time that British people were actually cooking proper Indian food in their homes. And I remember reading articles like, they've run out of cilantro - which is called green coriander - in Manchester because I had made a dish the day before. And it really changed the way the English were eating Indian food before.
There was very little of it, for one thing, and whatever there was at that time was very, very cheap. It was considered cheap, spicy food to go with beer. That's what the association was.
MONTAGNE: One last question: When we speak with musicians here on this program, we often ask them to suggest a song for us to go out on. Is there a recipe...
Ms. JAFFREY: A dish to go out on?
MONTAGNE: ...a dish that you would like to share with us, to go out on?
Ms. JAFFREY: Yes, there is a recipe that I might suggest. And that is a recipe that is absolutely wonderful in the season. And it's a red-pepper soup with ginger and fennel. This is a good time to have it and keep your sinuses clear.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. JAFFREY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: You'll find that recipe at our website, NPR.org, and in the new cookbook "At Home with Madhur Jaffrey." Tomorrow, "The Long View" Italian style, with Chef Marcella Hazan.
This is NPR News.