Curry chronicles

Curry chronicles

Get a taste of South Asian cooking in Britain’s bylanes, as Madhur Jaffery takes you on a culinary tour of the UK. Arundhati Pattabhiraman talks to the actress-turned-food writer about her kitchen experiments

Her shows have given Brits a taste of authentic Indian cuisine. Her books line the shelves of home cooks across Britain. And now the Queen of Curry is set to take Indians on a culinary journey across Britain with TLC’s latest show, Madhur Jaffery’s Curry Nation.

Britain has had a complicated relationship with all South Asian nations, and Madhur takes a road trip across the country to explore how much of a curry nation it has become.

Tracing the beginnings of her own romance with cooking, the petite octogenarian says, “When I was in India, I did not cook at all. Our family had cooks, so we never needed to.

The need arose when I left for London to study drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I missed good Indian food and there was no way to get it without making it myself.

So I wrote home to my mother for recipes. That is how it started. Then I went to the US where acting roles came infrequently. I started writing on the arts for magazines and newspapers. I wrote one piece on food and that kicked me into a whole new world.”

A regular face in Merchant-Ivory films and telefilms, Madhur soon became a household name in UK and popularised Indian food in a nation with a rigid food scene, where only curry flourished. Explaining the complex dynamics shared between India and Britain, Madhur says, “There is a historical connection between Britain and India that goes back to 1600 AD. Today, it is food that continues to sustain the bond. During my culinary journey through Curry Nation, I realised that the British really love Indian food. But the Indian food that is served here is not always what is served in India. They have adapted it as per their requirement.”

Curry for cover

At a time when the Indian cuisine in UK was synonymous with spicy curries, Madhur, who has been in the food scene since the 1980s, has tried to change this common perception. “Earlier, most people knew only about North Indian food, less was known about the sumptuous regional cuisines. So, through the show, I plan to showcase this diversity. Also, while I was working on Curry Nation, I realised that the British really love and enjoy Indian food. They eat by assigning dishes clear categories: very hot, hot, medium, mild, etc,” she elaborates.

With her own food map in hand, Madhur goes from London to Birmingham and Glasgow to Leicester, where immigrants from across the length and breadth of South Asia have made their homes and gradually stirred in their cuisine in the British way of life. Madhur says, “Through the show, I discovered how Indian food has been integrated into the English culture. The series gave me a chance to visit a pub on a Thursday, which was designated “curry night”.

Going into Glasgow was fascinating. I saw a curry sauce being poured over the ever-popular chips, and the sauce seemed of Indo-Chinese origin. In Yorkshire, I saw kids cooking and eating both local South Asian dishes and the foods of local white population. British children were chopping hot green chillies and enjoying their spicy spinach with potatoes and little Pakistani kids were cooking and enjoying a shepherd’s pie. That was wonderful to watch.”

Asian twists

Apart from travelling in search of extraordinary food experiences, Curry Nation will also feature Madhur cooking up a storm in the kitchen, giving simple twists to English classics like a Sunday chicken roast and masala roast potatoes. The show will also give a historical and cultural perspective to the culinary exchange. For example, one of the episodes will see Madhur head to Aldershot to get a taste of Nepalese dishes, which have been carried to Britain by soldiers from the Gorkha regiment of the British Army. In this episode, Madhur explores their cooking with Pemba Lama, one of the Gurkha regiment’s master chefs.

Speaking about her favourite encounter on the show, she says, “I had some excellent food, cooked by East African Indian families who left India about 100 years ago and settled in East Africa until they were thrown out. Then, they came to Britain and eventually opened restaurants. There is also great meat to be had in some very traditional Pakistani restaurants in the city. However, some of the worst dishes were served at the pubs who just loaded their vindaloos with chilly powder offering intense heat, a raw chilly powder taste and no flavour whatsoever.”

When asked about her favourite food memory, Madhur traces it back to her childhood in Delhi. “A simple dal and rice or a phulka with one or two vegetables would satisfy me completely. I remember my mother’s stir-fry peas with cumin seeds, a sprinkle of sour green mango powder and chilli powder over them. I would just put the whole pod between my teeth and pull, so that all the peas and the flesh on the pods just fell into my mouth. It was simply delicious,” she recalls.

An actress, a food writer, TV show host. Which of these roles does she cherish the most? “There is really no similarity between them. What sustained my soul was the acting work I was able to scrounge. Cook books made a good living for me, and television shows gave me a confident stage presence,” she concludes.

Catch Madhur Jaffery’s Curry Nation premiering tomorrow, on weekdays at 8 pm, on TLC.

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