OTB Meets… Indian Culinary Queen Madhur Jaffrey

Madhur Jaffrey is returning to British television screens for the first time in 17 years to present 10 episodes of Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation on Good Food, which sees her scale Britain far and wide to examine the nation’s obsession with Indian food. OTB caught up with Madhur to discuss her cookery career and what we can expect to see on her new show…

Hi Madhur, how are you this morning?
I’m very well, thank you.

That’s good to hear. You’re renowned for introducing the West to Indian food, but who taught you to cook?
I didn’t know how to cook when I came to Britain, so the only way for me to learn was through letters from my mother. She sent me little three line recipes from India, and that’s how I started. I used to take trips to the Bombay Emporium, which had lots of spices, and I started cooking. So in a way I’m self-taught, but with a lot of help from my Mother’s letters too, they were a crucial part of it.

In Curry Nation you travel all over Britain to explore our nation’s love affair with Indian cuisine. What cultural and culinary differences did you find in the regions you visited?
First of all there’s London, which has a bit of everything. You can go to Temple and eat Temple food, you can go to Southall and eat Punjabi food. There are Tamil-run restaurants that serve South Indian pancakes, dosa and things like that. We met a white British woman who had visited south India and liked the food so much that she decided to open a restaurant here.

I found Scotland fascinating: a lot of Sikhs have settled in Edinburgh and I met a group of Sikh women who felt they being neglected with nothing to do, so they started a cafe of their own making healthy Indian food. In Glasgow they eat haggis curry, haggis samosas and curry pies at football games, for example. We covered various different types of British food that are being eaten.

Did you look at the different ingredients and flavours that were used in different parts of the country?
I looked for the Indian flavours initially, but I think that by the time my book [Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation] was being written, I needed to know the state of all Indian cooking in Britain. I had to find out what the British preferred, how they ate their curries, what they liked – even chips with curry sauce, I wanted to know more about that as well! I just wanted to know every aspect of Indian food Brits were eating, and that meant travelling across the country. I went to homes, chippies, going into markets to see what sort of Indian food people wanted to eat.

I’ve never been to India, but some of my friends have and they all say the food is a lot different to the Indian food we’re used to in Britain. Why do you think that is?
A lot of it is anglicised, it’s geared to what the British want. In India it’s very regional, every home has its own recipes and everyday food is not what you get in a pub curry. It’s not rich, it’s not necessarily spiced, there’s a lot of variety, and you can eat three times a day. In terms of health it is well balanced.

What sort of food do you cook when you’re at home?
Well I don’t just eat Indian food… I eat Korean, or Thai, or French, or Italian… everything.

Do foods from around the world influence your Indian dishes?
Yes, sometimes. The other day I made a Niçoise salad, but instead of putting in tuna I stir-fried some prawns the Indian way with a lot of sauce and dribbled it over hard-boiled eggs as well as the salad. It was different, but I do this a lot. I bring in little bits of Indian food with French food, Italian food…

You’ve written so many cookbooks. How do come up with new recipes?
The world is full of ideas and you have to go out and look for them. The search for different kinds of food is an adventure in itself and one I love doing. I travelled the West coast of India from Bombay down to the south, it’s so beautiful. They cook with a lot of fish there.

Who’s your favourite TV chef on British screens?
Well I live in the US and don’t come over here very often, but I do like Jamie Oliver very much.

How popular is Indian food in America?
Not as popular, only a few people know about it. I think Chinese food is more popular than Indian. It is eaten around the country though, and I do sell a lot of books there. I would say Indian food is much closer to the heart of Britain than America.

I’m quite a novice when it comes to cooking and you make it look so easy on the TV. Is there anything you find difficult?
It’s all easy! It depends on what you’re doing… I think what makes it difficult for some people is the so-called ‘fear factor’. If you think to yourself ‘I can do it’ you will be ok. Find yourself a good recipe and read it through before you go shopping. Everyone can cook, it’s not that complicated really!

Thanks for speaking to us, Madhur. Best of luck with the series!

Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation airs Sundays-Thursdays at 9pm from Sunday 4th November exclusively on Good Food.

Madhur’s book, Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation, is available now at all good bookshops. If your local bookshop has been replaced by a branch of Tesco or Poundland, you can purchase it on Amazon by clicking here…

David Lintott is on Twitter.