Eighty-eight-year-old Madhur Jaffrey (née Bahadur) has been honoured with the Padma Bhushan this year, India’s third-highest civilian award. Hailed as the ‘First Lady of Global Indian Cuisine’, Jaffrey is also an actor, a food and travel writer, and a television personality.
In her debut cookbook ‘An Invitation to Indian Cooking‘ (1973), she brought Indian cuisine to the Western world. The book was later inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in the year 2006. Many Indian chefs took to social media to congratulate her on this momentous feat.
— Ranveer Brar (@ranveerbrar) January 26, 2022
Jaffrey, who has written many cookbooks, has also appeared in television programmes, and among them is Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, which premiered in the UK in 1982. Interestingly, in the year 2004, she was made the honorary ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ (CBE), for her contributions towards building cultural relationships between India, UK and the US, through her films, television appearances and cookery.
Jaffrey was born in Delhi’s Civil Lines on August 13, 1933, and she was the fifth of six children. It was quite a journey for her, growing up in the British Raj and then witnessing the Partition and the resultant violence within the country. Her childhood memoir, ‘Climbing the Mango Trees‘, was published in 2006, and in it she recalled the years spent in her sprawling ancestral bungalow named after her grandfather Rai Bahadur Raj Narain: No. 7, Raj Narain Marg.
In her youth, she and her family would occasionally indulge in Mughlai cuisine, and after the Partition, when refugees from Punjab settled in Delhi, she got introduced to Punjabi food and fell in love with its simplicity.
Jaffrey is an alumni of Delhi University’s Miranda House. During her college years, she would actively take part in theatre. It was when she joined the All India Radio (AIR) — where she hosted a western music programme — that she met her first-husband, the late British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey.
During this time, she also met Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a British novelist who was her Civil Lines neighbour, and was married to Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian architect. It is believed that Jhabvala’s first novel ‘To Whom She Will‘ (1955) — the story of a young couple in love at a radio station in Delhi — was based on the Jaffreys’ love story. The novel was published as Amrita (1956).
Jaffrey went to London to pursue acting as a profession, and joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) alongside Diana Rigg. During her stay there, she reportedly was not too impressed by the food. So, she wrote to her mother to share recipes of home-cooked meals from her childhood. She first tried the humble jeera-aloo.
I’m so thrilled to see #MadhurJaffrey’s name in the list of Padma award winners. She’s been awarded a Padma Bhushan for all her work as an actor, cookbook writer, cooking instructor. A most wonderful person I’ve known and interviewed over the last few decades. pic.twitter.com/cOp6oKN1hF
— Aseem Chhabra (@chhabs) January 25, 2022
She had a close association with Indian film producer and director Ismail Merchant, with whom she notably worked in the 1975 film, ‘Autobiography of a Princess‘. The Jaffreys got married and had three daughters — Meera, Zia and Sakina. Their marriage, however, unravelled by 1965. She is the only Indian to be named ‘Best Actress’ at the Berlin Film Festival award, for her role in ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ in 1965.
Jaffrey was recently seen in one of the episodes of the ‘Sex and the City’ spinoff ‘And Just Like That’, wherein she played the mother of a character called Sarita Choudhury, an Indian-American realtor.
Her last cookbook was ‘Instantly Indian Cookbook: Modern and Classic Recipes for the Instant Pot‘, published in 2019, wherein she presented recipes that became a hit in the lockdown.
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