Cookery Writer Madhur Jaffrey

150 150 Rob McGibbon

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Published: 18 May 2013

Cookery writer Madhur Jaffrey:

"I went to one of Ghandi’s prayer meetings when I was 15. He sang hymns and talked of equality and of one-ness and was so charismatic. A few days after, he was shot dead. It was so shocking and sad."

We ask a celebrity a set of devilishly probing questions – and only accept THE definitive answer.  This week it’s cookery writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey.

The prized possession you value above all others...A gold locket necklace from the early 1900s that my mother [Kashmiran Rani] wore for most of her life. It became mine as my share of her spoils when she died in her 60s and I was in my late 30s. I have always worn it to remind me of her. She was the most gentle and wonderful woman.

The unqualified regret you wish you could amend...I wish I had started acting in films earlier. I was 31 by the time I made Shakespeare Wallah [made in 1964, released in ’65], but until then I’d not had the opportunity. I feel as though I lost so many years.

The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions...I would have my entire family with me all day – my husband, my three daughters and three grandchildren. We’d wake up on Coco Island in the Maldives in a series of hotel cottages on stilts in the Indian Ocean and spend a few hours swimming and snorkelling. We would stop off in Kerala later in the morning for a walk before arriving in Florence in Italy for a gorgeous lunch of artichoke hearts, pasta and some osso bucco [bone marrow] and a big gelato for each of the kids. We’d go on a safari in Kenya in the evening to watch lions hunting antelope, or wildebeests thundering across the plains. We would end the day in Barcelona having the best tapas, including a platter of thin meat slices, grilled sardines and octopus with deep-fried pimientos de padron

The temptation you wish you could resist...I love potatoes in all forms, but it is not good for you to eat too much, especially French Fries. I am 79 now, but I still like to keep trim.

The book that holds an everlasting resonance...Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I first read it when I was 14 and have probably read it once a year ever since. It is so beautifully written, with such comedy, drama and romance. It is so familiar to me that reading it is like meeting up with a dear old friend. 

The priority activity if you were the Invisible Woman for a day...I would systematically destroy all nuclear weapons around the world.

The pet-hate that makes your hackles rise... Dishonesty. There is no reason to lie. The world would be a much better place if everyone were honest. It makes me so sad because lies are the route to unhappiness.

The film you can watch time and time again...The Rose Tattoo from 1955 with Burt Lancaster and the Italian actress Anna Magnani. I saw it the night before an exam at RADA in the late 1950s and her performance was so inspiring that it lifted me to the skies. It was because of her that I acted well the next day.

The person who has influenced you most...Mahatma Gandhi. I went to one of his prayer meetings in Delhi in January 1948, when I was 15. Thousands of people were there and he sang hymns and talked of equality and of one-ness. His was so charismatic and his teachings had a big impact on me, especially his beliefs in non-violence. A few days after that meeting, he was shot dead. It was like a bolt of lightening had destroyed half the world. It was so utterly tragic and sad.

The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint...Henry VIII and I’d say, How dare you be so horrible to your wives! I am not sure how the meeting would go.

The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child...Be true to yourself, do not hurt people, and find what you love to do in life – then never stop doing it.

The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity...All aspects of design. I am endlessly fascinated with how beautiful things are made, from a simple chair or table, to the great architecture of a building or a garden.

The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again...A rather large pottery pot-bellied elephant, which I bought in Mexico in the 1960s. I loved that piece but it broke and fell apart one day and I have missed it ever since.

The unending quest that drives you on...I am a perfectionist, so I am constantly in pursuit of doing everything to the best of my ability. I want my work to be sheer excellence and I am endlessly curious about the world.

The poem that touches your soul...John Milton’s On His Blindness. He was a helpless man who had gone blind, yet he was so sensitive that he saw things in the world that most sighted people could not. It is a powerful and moving poem from an incredible man.

The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase...That I am a cook, who never acted. So many people do not know that I am an actress, who became a cook.

The event that altered the course of your life and character...Meeting the film producer Ismail Merchant in 1959 was a total life-changer. I was in a bunch of young, ambitious actors with big dreams of making films and he was the man who made it all happen. Ismail was a powerhouse who had this incredible energy to get things done. At times he was a complicated and difficult man, but he was also great fun and he enthused us all. After meeting him, I was suddenly on the fast track to making important films. But it did not change my character, though!

The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it...I am a goody two-shoes, so crime is not for me, but perhaps I might sneak a basketful of Alphonso mangoes from India into America [she lives in New York]. Importing all fresh produce is banned here, but they are the best mangoes in the world – fibrous and sweet with a hint of sour-  that melt in your mouth.

The song that means most to you...I love Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night simply because it reminds me of the 1960s and my youth. A time of great excitement and so much dreaming.

The happiest moment you will cherish forever...The birth of my first grandson, Robi, who is 20 now. It was so special because my daughter Meera allowed me to watch the entire birth. It was completely different to having your own children because you do not have the pain to contend with. To witness the creation of a life – a gift from God – was truly magical.

The saddest time that shook your world...When India was partitioned in 1947. There was mayhem all over the country and it was the most shocking time. There were killings and rapes and armed gangs everywhere. I was largely shielded from it, but my father had to arm himself and go out on patrol in our neighbourhood. It was also the brutal hacking apart of the country that made me so sad. I wanted it to remain whole.

The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you...I am not haunted by it, but I would like a truly defining role in a great film. Maybe one that would bring me the Best Actress Oscar. You never know…

The philosophy that underpins your life...Look for the positive in everything you do. Too many people concentrate on the negative and it drags them down. I do everything with passion, then look at what has gone right, not what went wrong.

The order of service at your funeral...My husband says I should be burnt by the banks of the Ganges, but I say, Why bother with all that expense of going there!? I want whatever funeral is most convenient and the cheapest. I hate gaudy caskets, so just put me in a simple pine box and cremate me, then scatter my ashes in our garden in New York. Just get the process over with quickly, so you can have the laughter and joy of living. Afterwards, my friends and family can gather, have some good food and fun and simply drink a large Scotch for me.

The way you want to be remembered...I honestly do not care. I firmly believe that dead is dead and nothing will matter to me. But it will matter to my family that I am remembered kindly.

The Plug...My new cookery book, Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation, is published by Ebury, priced £20. Please visit