Diva of Diaspora
One of the leading members of the Indian Diaspora in the United States made India proud on March 29 when she won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the James Beard Foundation. She is the famous cookbook author, television chef, teacher and actress Madhur Jaffrey.
James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award “is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, or think about food in America.”
Jaffrey is the first Indian as well as the first South Asian to receive this particular honour.
In 2004, Jaffrey was made honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by the queen, in recognition of her achievements in the culinary and television world. In 2022, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award bestowed by the Indian government.
With the 2023 Lifetime Achievement award, Jaffrey has become a nine-time James Beard Award winner. According to the foundation’s press release, “Jaffrey first captured attention as an actress in the film Shakespeare Wallah, winning the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival in 1965. Her first cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, was published in 1973, and was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006. She has since released more than 30 award-winning cookbooks, cementing her status as the “Godmother of Indian Cooking.” The foundation added that she “is credited with bringing mainstream attention to Indian cuisine, both in the U.S. and the U.K.”
Understandably, Jaffrey is thrilled. “It’s a wonderful pinnacle to my career and I’m overjoyed,” soon after the award was announced.
Jaffrey began her career as an actress. She taught herself to cook with the help of her mother’s recipes when she was an acting student in London in the 1950s. After her divorce in 1966, she began taking cooking classes to provide for her family. Eventually, as her work got recognised, she started writing cookbooks that would go on to become bestsellers around the world. Jaffrey is also well-known for presenting cooking shows, including Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, which premiered on the BBC in 1982. “The series on the BBC was so popular that Ms. Jaffrey remembered being told that the city of Manchester, England, ran out of cilantro after she used it in a recipe with chicken,” reported the New York Times.
Madhur was born in 1933 in the undivided India at a place in Punjab which today is a part of Pakistan. She had first-hand experience of India’s Partition in 1947. At her Delhi home, Jaffrey’s family primarily ate food prepared overseen by the women of the family. From time to time, they indulged in Mughlai cuisine bought in the bylanes of Old Delhi. The refugees from Punjab who settled in Delhi post-partition brought their unique style of cooking. Moti Mahal, a dhaba in Daryaganj, introduced tandoori chicken and then went on to invent butter chicken and dal makhani. From her days of youth, Jaffrey was extremely fond of the simplicity and freshness of Punjabi food.
Reports say that Jaffrey never even went to the kitchen as a child. It’s even funnier when you think about it that someone who would go on to become one of the most renowned Indian cooks failed her domestic science classes. Her lessons included preparing dishes like the European dessert, blancmange, whose bland taste drove Jaffrey to dismiss the cookery lessons as preparing “British invalid foods from circa 1930”.
She did not take up cooking until the age of 19 when she went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). In London, she mastered the art of cooking using recipes of familiar dishes that were provided in correspondence from her mother. Her editor, Judith Jones wrote in her memoirs that Jaffrey was the perfect cookbook writer essentially because she had learned to cook childhood comfort food as an adult, and primarily from her mother’s written instructions.
Apart from her prowess as a cookbook writer, Jaffrey is also a renowned actor and theatre practitioner. In the 1960s, after her award-winning performance in Shakespeare Wallah, she came to be known as the “actress who could cook”. After the BBC hired her to appear on their cooking show, she received global acclaim. Her life as a theatre practitioner had taken her to New York City in 1958. She was the food consultant at Dawat (now closed), which was considered by many food critics to be among the best Indian restaurants in New York City.
Jaffrey is now 89 years young and has lived a fulfilling, exciting, and successful life as an artist and writer.