The One Piece of Madhur Jaffrey Advice I Live By

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There’s a saying in my mother tongue, Marathi (the language of the Western Indian state of Maharashtra): बाळाचे पाय पाळण्यात दिसतात. Which translates, figuratively, to: The child’s eminence is seen in the cradle itself.

That was clearly not the case with actress Madhur Jaffrey, now the doyen of Indian cuisine and food writing. An accidental ambassador of Indian food, Jaffrey is primarily an actress by training, and still knows herself as one. Her foray into cooking came out of necessity and nostalgia for home food when she became an acting student at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1955.

Weary of the cafeteria’s insipid menu, Jaffrey begged her mother for recipes. Her mother’s response came on thin-paper aerograms (pre-paid postcards in India, where you just write your note, fold it per the instructions, and slip it into a mailbox). Putting this wisdom to use in her student apartment with minimal pots and pans and whatever available spices and vegetables, Jaffrey began to cook.

As she writes in Invitation to Indian Cooking,

But with expert long-distance help from my mother, I started learning. I began adapting her recipes to what was available in England and later, when I moved to America, to the ingredients and appliances that I found here….Slowly I began changing the recipes to suit the conditions. I managed to arrive at the genuine taste of traditional dishes, but often had to take quite a circuitous and unorthodox route to get there.

Now contrast Jaffrey’s baby steps to her confidence in New York City, where she eventually moved. Whenever anyone asked her where to go for a good Indian meal, she’d invite them over to her home (eventually, tired of cooking and cleaning for so many people, she began handing out recipes instead). Once, even, she went to a party where each and every dish was unknowingly made from these recipes. When asked about the dishes, the host told Jaffrey that she didn’t know whose recipes they were but that they’d been “floating around.”

Jaffrey’s arc is one of a struggling novice to a culinary authority exerting her presence and voice in absentia. Her journey also raises questions for me about whether or not there’s anything different between throwing oneself into an activity as an adult compared to as a child. Child prodigies are all good and well, but I believe you can become a topnotch teacher later in life, even if you learn something new as an adult and pursue it with zeal.

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One time, while reading up on chickpeas for an article I was writing, I came across Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian, where she says, “Here’s something to keep in mind: 1 cup of dried chickpeas will yield 3 cups of cooked drained chickpeas; 1 ½ cups of dried chickpeas will yield 4 ½ cups of cooked drained chickpeas. If you have to substitute canned chickpeas for the home-cooked ones, a 20-ounce can generally yields 2 ¼ cup of drained cooked chickpeas.”

My heart did a little dance when I read this, and I was in a euphoric state that lasted the whole day. Who writes such detailed proportions, unless they’ve thought through all the questions that might arise in the home cook’s mind?

Jaffrey has dropped a lot of wisdom dust on me over the years: Cook with your kids, start with a few spices required for a particular dish and then slowly expand your spice wardrobe, clean as you cook (love, love, love it), don’t be afraid to cook cuisines foreign to you. But there’s one piece of advice which has always stayed very close to my heart: “See the dish being cooked in front of your eyes.”

In Vegetarian India, Jaffrey writes:

Over the years, I have developed my own system for collecting good recipes. I have learned that in India, these are always found in private homes, and that I cannot rely on generous offers of “written recipes.” Well-meaning housewives who willingly part with them often leave out crucial ingredients that they take for granted, or use colloquial names and words I do not understand. I have to see the dish being cooked in front of my eyes. This way I know the exact amount of heat being used, the length of the cooking time, the amount of liquid required, and the exact cut of the vegetable.

As a result, Jaffrey’s recipes are written out to perfection, detailed and precise.

A few years back I had a panic attack. It was a moment of culinary existentialism when I realized that, unless I learn fast, my grandmother’s recipes, my mother’s recipes, will be lost forever. How would I EVER replicate their flavors? Who would send me pickles? Mango, lime, ginger, tomato…yaada, yaada, yaada…my train of thought as usual got stuck on the foods so important to me, I’d be nothing without them.

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Now you need to understand how deeply entrenched pickles are in the psyche of an Indian. A veritable spice fest, prepared once a year to last the whole year, pickles represent a throwback, fast-disappearing style of cooking that’s firmly rooted in the notion that no amount of time and effort is too much to churn out quality. Unlike western pickles that are vinegar based, Indian pickles use a smorgasbord of spices and oodles of oil to last. And this delicate balance of spices and oil is what confounds me to believe that anyone who can make an awesome pickle that lasts for the full year and doesn’t spoil, even without refrigeration (which is a lot to be said for the hot, sultry, tropical weather of India), has attained the zenith of culinary prowess.

Which is why this summer I scheduled my annual India trip to coincide with my mother’s pickle day. The goal was to make a pickle of about 50 to 60 raw, green mangoes. And everything had to be done on the same day, nothing the day before or even a few hours in advance.

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Early in the morning we rushed to the special vegetable market to buy green mangoes. After choosing the mangoes, my mom haggled with the vendor for the best price. I didn’t see the point of this back and forth, as he barely shaved a few rupees off, but it satisfied my mother that an annual ritual had been followed. The vendor cut the mangoes into pieces with his machete-like contraption attached to a wooden board, and we came home with about nine kilos of cut mangoes.

As I washed these mango pieces in water and laid them out on a piece of cloth to drain, my mother pan-roasted fenugreek seeds to turn into powder. But she ground mustard seeds to a powder without roasting, as they don’t need heat to bring out their flavor. And no, she could not possibly think of roasting, grinding, and keeping them ready the day before, as robust spices like mustard seed and fenugreek seed powder turn bitter every minute you don’t mix or use them.

All of the pickle ingredients were corralled: salt, red chile powder, mustard seeds powder, fenugreek seeds powder, peanut oil, turmeric powder, cumin seeds powder, sesame seeds powder, asafetida, and mango pieces.

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And then my mother just eyeballed the proportion of spices and added them to the tub containing the mango pieces. I was furiously taking down notes and proportions. After mixing the spices vigorously into the mangoes, by hand—no gloves, please—she tasted the mix, had me taste it, was satisfied, and set aside this mixture with a cover.

Next, she heated up a big pot of oil to make fodni, also known as tadka—seasoned oil. After the oil was hot enough (she knew by the smell and vapor coming from the oil, sans thermometer), she added black mustard seeds and cumin seeds and let them pop. Turning the heat off, she set aside this oil to cool completely for a full 24 hours. The next day she poured this room-temperature oil over the mango mixture, wherein the pieces were secreting moisture that turned the previous day’s dry spice mix into a rich, thick paste. I helped her fill the pickle into large, transparent, glass canisters and we were done.

She looked at me, smiled, and said, “That’s all it takes. Easy, right?”

Apart from the minutiae about proportions, freshness of spices, and oil temperature, my most enduring takeaway was my mother’s positive attitude throughout the day. She was excited, super enthusiastic, and just genuinely happy.

Later she told me that the cook always passes on her or his “mental vibes” into the food prepared, so it’s especially important to maintain this upbeat demeanor. She further added in a typical tone that only mothers have, the tone that can keep you up at night, that this is the demeanor one should possess every day while cooking. I would never have been able to put a finger on this soft ingredient of a recipe, had I not been present that day.

Jaffrey’s advice is a reminder to always “see the dish being cooked in front of your eyes,” or else that knowledge will be lost forever.

What has Madhur Jaffrey taught you over the years? Let us know in the comments below.

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