For generations, Indian women have learned to cook by watching their mothers cooking at the stove. In my family, it was different. My mum didn’t want me to be a housewife, so she’d kick me out of the kitchen and up the stairs to do my homework. She wanted me to be independent and not have to worry about money.
The studying did pay off. At 18 I left for university – but there were two problems. I had become desperately homesick for mum’s food and I could barely roll a chapati. I knew I needed to head home and learn by standing at her side.
Proudly displayed in the kitchen was a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery. It was the first of her books that we Brits were introduced to in 1983 and, excitingly, it was accompanied by a TV series. For my mum it was hugely inspirational to see an Indian woman on the television, travelling, cooking and wearing saris.
That book, and my mum’s guidance, allowed me to start my journey into cooking. I’d go back to my shoebox of a kitchen, balance a chopping board over the bin and cook Madhur’s sesame seed potatoes, a simple but beautiful dish, or her spiced scrambled eggs.
But if I were to pick my favourite of her books, it would have to be An Invitation to Indian Cooking, which came out a decade earlier in America. That was the book that taught me how to write.
It showed me how evocative and pleasurable food stories can be. In one recipe, she describes taking her grandma’s prized lime pickle on a long car journey to Shimla, and how on every hairpin bend up the mountain, the pickle is tossed and turned, which is exactly what a pickle needs to help mature. This pickle could only be stirred with a “special hand”, which her grandmother had decided belonged to a small wizened gentleman, who alone was allowed to give the pickle a swish.
From her, I also learned how to have empathy when writing for the home cook. At every stage as a reader, it feels as though she’s got your back – for example, she will warn you to keep your face averted if you’re putting a capricious ginger paste into a hot pan, or will reassure you that, while a rajma dal might take five hours to cook, they’ll be an effortless five hours for the cook.
On every page, her curiosity and energy for life are palpable. It’s like electricity running through the book. Even now, at the age of 85, she is still working and writing cookbooks, continuing to do what she loves with vigour and passion. When I cook, write or start anything new, I always think: how could I be more Madhur?
Madhur’s sesame seed potatoes (til ke aloo)
An easy, delicious dish that you might enjoy both with Indian meals and with simple dinners of roast and grilled meats.
Prep 5 min
Cook 3-4 hrs
6 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp black mustard seeds
2 tbsp sesame seeds
About 2 tsp salt
⅛-½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp lemon juice
Boil the potatoes in their jackets. Drain, leave to cool for three to four hours, then peel and dice into 2cm cubes.
Put the vegetable oil in a large frying pan, and set over medium heat – a nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron frying-pan would be ideal. When the oil is very hot, put in the cumin seeds, mustard seeds and the sesame seeds. As soon as the seeds begin to pop – this just takes a few seconds – put in the diced potatoes, and stir-fry for about five minutes.
Add about the the salt, cayenne and the lemon juice. Stir-fry for another three to four minutes, until there are brown spots on the potatoes. Serve with grilled or roast meats or a curry.