Across my Table

I met Madhur Jaffrey!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013Me! In words

As we entered the Bangalore International Center, there she was casually sipping tea and talking with everyone who approached her. Somehow I had this image of her where she would be standing, very diva-like, unapproachable, mainly because of the heights of success she has achieved in the field of food. But all those thoughts were completely flushed away when I walked up to her and introduced myself. Since everyone seemed to be gently trying to nudge their way to her, I stopped my conversation short at requesting a few photographs. 

Madhur Jaffrey at the BIC 

Madhur's talk centered around her book "Climbing the Mango Trees" and she peppered her book reading with several stories that were so integral to her turning foodie  Madhur narrated how she was born in a Kayasth family all those years ago when large joint families of 30 members and more were common. A child's initiation into the world of taste then was made by writing the word "Om" on the child's tongue with honey. Madhur's grandmother used to fondly tell her of how as a baby, the minute this was done, Madhur stuck her tongue out for more. 

That was her first foray into the world of taste and food. Her community, she point out preferred their kebabs over their desserts. Her first step into the world of spice was in emulation of the older kids in the family. Climbing up the mango tree in the garden armed with chilli powder, salt and crushed cumin. She told us of how there was a hierarchy of position on the tree as well, with the older ones going all the way to the top to pluck, passing it down to the middle rung that peeled and sliced and then down to the lower rung that relished it with the spices. 

At this point, she paused to tell us of how our palates can have a memory of their own. A food or ingredient you taste at any point in your life, will be savored and the memory stored away. Today when you go shopping for your ingredients, you instantly are able to recall tastes and textures and are able to visualize the final product of the ingredient you hold in your hand. It is pity though, she felt that people don't really recognize the existence of those with a good palate - we refer to people as having a good sense of music, rhythm, acute sense of hearing or memory, but rarely is someone feted for having a good palate. It is essential to have a good palate to get into the world of food.

It is for this particular ability of hers - a great palate, that Madhur feels dragged or rather hijacked her into the world of food. 

Madhur Jaffrey at the beginning of her address

Madhur's book is all about her life - right from the growing up years to the time fame and fortune knocked on her door. She spoke fondly of family picnics where preparations would start early in the morning and work was always well delegated in the kitchen. You had a bunch at one end chopping, cutting and rolling out kebabs, you had another rolling out puris and chapatis and then third that manned the stoves frying and cooking away. All of this would be packed away and the family of 30 piled in 3 cars in an orderly manner. As soon as the family reached the picnic spot, the kids would explode out of the car in all directions, only to be lured back by all the enticing food that laid out on long dhurries. Madhur reminisced about how they never used cutlery back then - that one puri cupped in the hand would form a makeshift plate while another would be used to get the food into the mouth.

Another memory was that of a beauty treatment by her mother - a cleansing treatment with milk. The girls were woken up and taken to wash their face. Fresh milk, full of cream that had just been brought in was used in this treatment - each youngster had to take a bit and rub onto their face - back and forth till it became stringy and then wash it off!

Madhur spoke of the Partition and the tragedies it brought in its wake - a time when several of their Muslim friends left for good, with their knowledge of food going with them. In came a new set of people, into Punjab, bringing with them a whole different experience.

Your childhood memories are what define you as an adult and for Madhur that has been in the concept of "jhoota" - or something that has been tainted by the mouth. In her home, it was sacrilege to share food that was touched by the mouth of the other. This was a habit that was well-ingrained into every person of the household and even became a way for the young ones' to tease each other. Madhur told us that much later there were times when people would request her to taste something that they were eating to tell them what the ingredients were and it would take all her might to take the bite without flinching. It was a habit that was hard to grow out of.

Moving onto her foray into food. Madhur left the comforting environs of her home to go to acting school in England. She remembers how their cafeteria was on the 5th floor and the only succor for all that effort of climbing was see-through slivers of roast beef, cabbage and potatoes "that seemed to have been on the boil for days." Never was the desire for home so great than at this time. Madhur wrote via airmail to her mother and asked for recipes. What she got were simple three-line recipes, which she began to throw together. That is when her food memories of all those tastes over the years came into play and she was able to recreate a small piece of home. 

Acting did not really go the way Madhur wanted early on in her career. Most people wanted her Indianness to come to the fore, but her training had changed her accent. To help keep the momentum going she took to writing general pieces on Indian culture and places for various publications. Once she was asked to write a piece on Indian food and soon was asked to pen a book of Indian recipes. This venture took all of five years with all of the recipes coming only from close family members. All of the recipes were Delhi-centric and she had taken the trouble to test each and every one of them. From then on Madhur spent more time exploring and discovering. It was also a time she was called on by the famous James Beard to assist in teaching his cookery classes. 

Somewhere along the line Madhur was approached by the BBC for a cookery program on TV. She was asked if she could provide them with an audio or video of any of her classes. In her little kitchen she placed a camera on top of her fridge and filmed her class. Only on viewing the tape did she realize that there was nothing interesting in there - just a bunch of mistakes by her students in rolling out puris, dropping them in hot oil only to watch them sink and getting her students to do it all over again. What she suggested to the folks at BBC was that she would pretend to have a class and film that... which she did, complete with the "look at the sizzle, take in the aroma, and there you have it" set of theatrics. The rest as they say is history. 

What Madhur found very gratifying of her stint on TV was the fact that the Indian population felt a sense of pride having someone represent something that was so close to every Indian's heart - the food. This was a far throw from the way they were being portrayed in the media at that time. 

We could have gone on listening and I am sure Madhur had a million stories to tell. The floor was thrown open to questions and she fielded each and every one of them brilliantly. I managed to push through a question too - with the plethora of recipe books in every cuisine, most people want the so-called "authentic" cookbook. For a country as diverse as ours, how does one even think of authentic - she said that there is no such thing as authenticity. It is something that changes with time. Ingredients that weren't even part of the Indian food culture found their way in and people over generations have accepted them as integral to themselves. For example, Madhur has had a tough time explaining to the people of Punjab that corn is not originally from there!

I even got to spend some time with Madhur on a more personal basis a little later in the evening. She is a very amiable person and is a great conversationalist. She prefers her vegetarian food over meat and even today would opt for a home cooked meal over eating out. Each and every recipe she pens is tried out personally and that's why she had a fridge that is always heavily laden.

I have just started reading Madhur's book and it makes for simple, yet interesting reading. Much like a little diary it gives you a glimpse into some beautiful memories of a living legend of Indian food.

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