The Actress Who Could Cook: Meet Madhur Jaffrey

5 months ago / by Habibur Shohon
Madhur Jaffery
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Revered as the “First Lady of Global Indian Cuisine,” Madhur Jaffrey is widely considered the the primary Indian food authority in the West. She’s written over 30 cookbooks and is a seven-time James Beard Award-winner for “exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts,” including the Cookbook Hall of Fame Award. She hosts cooking shows in the U.K. and U.S. alike.

Chef Madhur Jaffrey was born in Civil Lines, Delhi, India on August 13, 1933 into a Mathur Kayastha Hindu joint family. She was her parents’ fifth child of six children. Being raised in the British Raj, she bore witness to the Partition and subsequent nationwide violence. During this period, she spent years in her family’s bungalow. These memories and experiences are recounted in her 2006 memoir “Climbing the Mango Tree.”

As a young girl, she would sometimes eat Mughlai food with her family, but when Punjab refugees began settling in Delhi after the Partition, she got introduced to Punjabi cuisine and became enamored with it.

Actress Madhur Jaffrey

Also while still in her youth, Madhur Jaffrey started out on the road to being a classically trained actress, performing in plays. As a young woman, she first attended the University of Delhi’s Miranda House, then got a job with Akashvani Radio. At 19 years old, she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, England.

Even after she switched careers to cooking, the acting bug remained with her, and she even played an award-winning role as a quintessential Bollywood diva Manjula in Merchant Ivory’s 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah. For her work in that film, she became the only Indian ever to win the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival. Her close rapport with producer/director Ismail Merchant led her later to appear in the acclaimed 1975 movie Autobiography of a Princess.

She also guest starred in TV’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Law and Order: SVU and And Just Like That, the spinoff of Sex and the City. She also appeared on Broadway in 2004 in a production of Bombay Dreams.

Chef Madhur Jaffrey

While in school on a limited scholarship, Madhur Jaffrey was forced to dine at the student canteen, and London had only a few subpar Indian restaurants, as she described it to NPR. Quickly, she found she missed Indian food tremendously, so she wrote to her mother asking her to teach her daughter how to cook. In response, Madhur’s mother started sending three-line recipes in letters to her. Despite the extreme simplicity of the recipes, Madhur was nevertheless able to recreate the flavors she so vividly remembered from growing up. The first meal she tried making was jeera-aloo, a simple potato dish with spices and herbs. As she recalls it, this was the beginning of a total and permanent shift in her career and life paths.

Her foray into culinary writing launched with her 1973 book “An Invitation to Indian Cooking.” Later, in 2006, the James Beard Foundation inducted the book into its Cookbook Hall of Fame.

Madhur Jaffrey’s dual passions for acting and cooking were elucidated in the New York Times article “Indian Actress is a Star in the Kitchen, Too.” It heralded a true blending of those passions in cooking TV shows like her ‘80s BBC show “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery.” In 1986, she opened her own restaurant, Dawait in New York City; it remains open today.

In 2004, she was named “Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ (CBE)” due to the contributions her cooking, TV appearances and film roles made to fostering cultural relationships between India, the U.S. and the U.K.

In 2019, the recipes she published in her latest cookbook “Instantly Indian Cookbook: Modern and Classic Recipes for the Instant Pot” became popular during the COVID lockdown. Other successful Madhur Jaffrey titles include “Curry Easy,” “Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible” and “Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian.”

Skip to the present day and she’s the recipient of the honorable Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in India.

Chef Madhur Jaffrey makes a point of noting that, despite the former India’s splitting into India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, all three countries share South Asian cuisine in common.

FAQs

What is the net worth of Madhur Jaffrey?

Madhur Jaffrey’s net worth is approximately $18 million.

Who is Madhur Jaffrey married to?

She is divorced from her first husband, British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey, to whom she was married from 1958 to 1965 and with whom she has three daughters: Zia, Meera and Sakina. The two met while Madhur was still in college and working at All India Radio (AIR) hosting a western music show.

Since 1969, Madhur Jaffrey has been married to her second husband Sanford Allen, a violinist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

When did Madhur Jaffrey start her career?

Madhur Jaffrey’s newly acquired skills in cooking while studying drama in college developed into a full-fledged career in cooking after Shakespeare Wallah came out and the New York Times outed her as the “actress who could cook.” There’s even a story of how Ismail Merchant persuaded The New York Times food critic to publicize the film by inviting him to a meal prepared by one of its stars; she’d made stuffed green peppers and koftas in sour cream with cucumber raita–and the rest is culinary history.

What is the age of Madhur Jaffrey?

As of 2022, the age of Madhur Jaffrey is 88 years old.