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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Monday, October 23, 2006


When a session with Madhur Jaffrey was first suggested to me, I quickly called Bala, whose instant reaction was "This is so darn unfair, I do all the cooking and you get to interview Madhur Jaffrey."

Stopping short of getting into the unfairness of it all, I have to admit that I am a walking disaster in the kitchen. The only time I get it right is when I am sitcking stuff into the oven and letting the oven do the rest for me. Though there have been brief moments of survival, like making the prawn curry with lots of help from the multi-faceted Madhur Jaffrey.

As a family, we have been hooked on her cookery shows, on her screen avataar in several films, including the notable Merchant Ivory ones and now with her earnest and easy to read memoir, 'Climbing The Mango Trees':

She has been credited with several things. Key among which has been making Indian curry and spices hot long before India and its booming economy became hot. Watching cookery shows today you might not even know, but Madhur was one of the pioneers in taking such shows out of the restictive studio settings. This, at a time, when shoot on site and telling the story of food through its cultural connections was almost unheard of.

What makes her story even more interesting is the fact the she learnt cooking 'through correspondence.' Growing up in a large well-off Indian family at the time of Independence, there never was any necessity to spend time in the kitchen.

Her initiation into food began while she was a drama student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Hungering for the heady spices of home, she wrote to her mother in India begging her to send simple recipes. Her mother obliged, and thus Jaffrey learnt to cook via mail, although this was never intended as a career move. She was drawn into cooking as a business, after friends implored her to write a cook book. With that began her foray into food, which went from books to television.

As a show host, her immense success and appeal was attributed to her sensitive style of presentation and the way she revolutionized and demystified Indian cooking. In fact, many say that the ready availability of oriental spices and other Indian ingredients in British supermarkets is a direct result of Madhur Jaffrey's television programmes.

Many of her cookbooks have won several reputed international awards just as they have won legions of fans.

Given her rich and varied life, a memoir simply couldn't have been far behind. She has seen India at a time of great change while growing up in a large family where her grandfather often presided over dinners at which 40 or more members of the extended family savored together the wonderfully flavorful dishes that were forever imprinted on Madhur's palate. A lot happens between Number 5 and Number 7 in Madhur's Delhi.

Many of the events captured in this memoir are breathtaking in their simplicity. Others that centre around food re-live some of the great times that the author has lived through. Simple and evocative, it is a recollection of a life and time long gone by. A time when her mother forced her and her sisters to wash their faces with milk, leading to some stunning recollections of India - the highly lactose tolerant nation:
"We had milk in paneer, milk in sweets, dumplings and rice, cheese sweets, without milk, India this highly lactose country would just wither away."

Having met Madhur in person and havign to failed to recognise her the first time I saw her - for one she is so small that if she is living on the food she talks about then a Madhur Jaffrey diet is strongly recommended in place of the Atkins and all that milk on her cheeks has given her this perfect complexion that belies her 73 years. Energetic at her age, she immediately agrees to an interview after our hour-long conversation, taking a break only to go yet another spice trail in Ubud.

Part of her charm is quite simply being agreeable to just about everything you ask her for. When I asked her if she'd oblige with a reading, prompt came the answer "if you have the pages marked, I'll be happy to do it." What a memorable reading that turned out to be for me and me legions of Madhur fans.

A picture of poise, with a complexion that has been honed by years of real milky washes, Madhur is quite simply the charming persona you see on television, film and on stage. Years of being in the spotlight have only made her stunningly grounded. That's part of the reason why her cookbooks thrive on our bookshelves and why this award-winning actress continues to remain a bestselling author as well.