Some like it hot

Some like it hot

She was instrumental in introducing Indian cuisine to the West, but the many interpretations of its dishes are still eye-opening to Delhi-born chef Madhur Jaffrey.

In her food series Madhur Jaffrey: Curry Nation, the 80-year-old host-actress gives viewers an insight into the various styles of curries, as well as food from the lesser-known regions of India.

She tells Life! in an e-mail interview: "Going into a pub on a Thursday, a designated Curry Night allowed me to see how important it was for the British to have some control over the curries they ate by assigning them clear categories: very hot, hot, medium or mild. This does not exist in India."

She recalls other memorable experiences:

"Going to Glasgow was fascinating as I saw a 'curry sauce' being poured over the ever-popular chips, a sauce that seemed of Indo-Chinese origin.

"In Yorkshire, I saw small kids cooking and eating both the foods of the local South Asians and the foods of the local white population. Little white kids were chopping hot green chillies and enjoying their spicy spinach with potatoes and little Pakistani kids were cooking and enjoying shepherd's pie. That was wonderful to watch."

Hoping to expose people to more regional cuisines, she delves into Kenyan-Indian dishes, cooks with one of the Gurkha regiment's master chefs, discovers haggis curries in Glasgow and meets the new generation of young British Indians to "see what they are cooking today".

The seasoned actress' ease in front of the camera comes from her years of acting, mainly in films by American director James Ivory and Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant.

She says: "Knowing how to act is excellent training to do anything in front of a camera, whether it is playing a role, being a presenter or being a TV chef. It helps you to relax and be yourself."

Her foundation in English literature has also helped her with writing her own cookbooks and food articles for publications such as the Financial Times.

Jaffrey, who is married and has three daughters, grew up eating various meat dishes spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, to name a few. But she picked up cooking only because she moved to London to study 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 ask my mother for recipes."

She moved to the United States to pursue a career in acting and also dabbled in writing on the arts scene. But it was an article on food that propelled her into the culinary world, where she received offers to write cookbooks and host cooking shows.

Since then, her mission to share her Indian heritage has not ceased, but she remains critical about its cuisine's standard around the world. She counts Singapore's fish-head curry as one of her favourites.

Her honest opinion of British curry?

She says: "The best was cooked by East African Indian families who left India about 100 years ago, settled in East Africa until they were thrown out, and then came to Britain and eventually opened restaurants.

"Some of the worst were the pubs who just loaded their vindaloos with chilli powder, offering intense heat, a raw chilli powder taste and no flavour whatsoever."

Madhur Jaffrey: Curry Nation ends its run on BBC Lifestyle (StarHub TV Channel 432) at 8pm on Thursday.

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