From your own experience raising children in the United States, do you think homeland food has a different significance for the immigrant versus their children?
I think it’s even more important for the second generation. I can speak for my kids. They wanted so desperately to connect with India. We used to go once a year. They saw their cousins. They saw India. But when they came back their only connection was me and Indian food. And all of them actually cook Indian food. I didn’t teach them. They said I would just say “Help me with this or that.” I don’t remember doing that.
When you moved to the West you didn’t know how to cook. How did you escape learning?
I don’t know. We had cooks. My mother never cooked as such, only for special occasions. I never needed to cook but such wonderful food appeared before me everyday. But the minute I left, the minute I was in cold, drizzly London I became desperate. And I went in the late 50s. There was nothing. England had terrible, terrible Indian restaurants. I remember going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. We had to climb five flights of stairs to go up to the canteen. You got there and there was a gray slice of roast beef and some cabbage and potatoes that had been cooked for days, it seemed.
And I would look at it and dream of Indian food, especially home food. So I started writing letters to my mother saying please, please, teach me how to cook. I still have her flimsy little air letters. I asked for two or three recipes. I remember one was for cauliflower, one was for meat, in India it was always goat, and one was for potatoes. She sent me three line recipes and I was able, with those three lines recipes and a little bit of this and a little bit of that, to recreate [her cooking.] I’ve been thinking, as I get older, that there is such a thing as food memory. It’s like a computer. Everything goes into your head and you can draw out and reproduce things based on something you had a long time ago because the file is still there.
What are your favorite taste memories?
The first clear memory is probably eating green mangos from the tree that grew in my garden; climbing up with my cousins, with penknives, and salt and chili powder in one’s hand. Going up there, cutting those things, just dipping them in the mixture and eating them,
We had wonderful cooks. I was raised in a joint family. There were 30-40 people eating at a time. The food was incredible. In winter there would be hunts so there would be ducks, and quail, and partridge. They would be cooked marvelously with cardamom and cinnamon.
But are you remembering food or remembering family, childhood, and extended families of dozens of cousins?
You don’t know which way it is—the chicken or egg. They are combined. Food memories are such emotional memories. They are linked in every possible way to the time.
You wrote in your memoir of your childhood, Climbing the Mango Trees, that even the partition of India into Pakistan has a taste memory for you?
My school was a missionary school. It was called a purdah school, which means girls who wore the veil could come to our school. There were Muslims and Hindus in the same school. We used to sit and have our meals together. We’d take our tiffin carriers to the garden at lunchtime. The Muslim girls had food that tasted one way, the Jain girl had food that tasted another way. I remember all those specific tastes and each one being so marvelous. With Partition, all our Muslim friends were gone and so we were bereft. We lost not only of the people, but the cuisine.
When you tried to do a cook book was it hard to measure things?
When I started cooking for myself I was cooking by taste and taste memory. I had no money when I came to New York. I started writing. I wrote one article on food, the others were on arts and music. And that somehow took off and had a life of its own and I was asked to do a cookbook. It was Knopf who asked me to do my first cookbook. They asked how long would it take. And I said 3 months. How long does it take to put down a few recipes? It took 5 years.
I remember one recipe I was trying out for rasgullas, and every time I tried it something became sour when I curdled the milk and I threw away batches and batches.
When you started writing about Indian cooking for Western audiences how did you get them over the hump of feeling intimidated?
I think they didn’t really get over the hump. My cookbooks got very good reviews. My first one sold respectable numbers but not great, until I did television. And that is a world unto its own. TV brings in the [audience.] I did my television shows in England. The timing was just right. It was the early 80s, people had traveled. They knew more about Indian food.
Did you have any moments on TV like the apocryphal one ascribed to Julia Child where she is supposed to have dropped a turkey on the floor and just kept picked it up and kept going?
I didn’t quite do that. But I have had all kinds of disasters. I soaked rice that I had drained. It was so clumped up that nothing happened and then I shook it and it went all over.
When I made poori I was so nervous that it wouldn’t puff up in a ball. My producer said I was hitting the poori with a spatula and saying, “Come on, puff up.”
Did you imaging that generations later thousands of single Silicon Valley H1-B engineers, who never learned to boil an egg, would use your books as a sort of Bible to Indian cooking?
It’s so wonderful. I’d get these kids at Yale and Harvard who would come up and say we use your cookbook all the time. Then I started meeting their kids and they would say they had grown up with my cookbooks.
Now I am meeting their children—schoolchildren, teenagers—saying they grew up on that food. I find that just wonderful.
Do you think the success of Indian food in the West is a double-edged sword—you just have all these coma-inducing lunch buffets and the same chicken tikka masala menus?
This is the trouble. It’s like what happened with Chinese food. It came into this country and it became generalized and it wasn’t very good. With Indian food the great resurrection is yet to happen.
What’s your comfort food?
Dal and rice. Split peas cooked simply with an Indian seasoning. And plain Basmati rice. You give me that and I am very happy.
Madhur Jaffrey spoke to Sandip Roy on the show New America Now.