'I'd rather be a Bond villain!' Indian food legend Madhur Jaffrey says the acting career she started in the 50s excites her more than her new TV cooking series
21:30 GMT, 26 October 2012
The cameras are whirring in the tiny kitchen of an Edinburgh caf, and a slight figure with a glossy bob is discussing the best way to marinate fish.
She seems a natural in front of the camera. When the director needs a retake, he gets one, without any fuss. Her smile is bright; her eyes engaging. She clearly knows one end of a cod fillet from the other, too.
Nothing new here, you might think. Barely a week goes by without another bright young thing getting their own TV cookery programme.
Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian food legend who is credited with introducing Britain to the curry
The difference is that Madhur Jaffrey is 79 years old, and perhaps the world's leading authority on Indian cookery.
She is credited with introducing Britain to the curry, and teaching us (or maybe our mothers) the difference between coriander and kumquat. Her Ultimate Curry Bible is the most comprehensive book ever written on the subject.
You might imagine she'd have a string of restaurants by now, her own range of cookery sauces, spice-racks, aprons and cumin-scented soaps. So why aren't I falling over displays of Madhur Jaffrey novelty mugs in Debenhams
Madhur Jaffrey in the 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah
'I'm not a business person,' she smiles.
'People like Jamie Oliver are smart businessmen.
'They have managers,
they know how to run restaurants. They turn it into an empire.
'I have no
interest in that aspect at all because I'm no good at it. I've never
tried to be a brand.'
What's more astonishing, perhaps, is her lack of presence on TV. She's 'dabbled' as she puts it, appearing in guest slots on TV shows, but she's never had a really big TV series of her own. Until now.
Today Madhur is filming for a new show that takes her the length and breadth of Britain, discovering how much of a curry nation we've become.
'I don't think anyone could have predicted how popular Indian food would become,' she says. 'I wanted to put what has happened into context, to look at some of the recipes, ingredients and techniques, but also to hear the stories of individual families in Britain whose fathers came out of villages in India on donkeys.
'Now they're rattling 24-carat gold bracelets and driving Bentleys. And they made it in a generation. They're not only wealthy themselves, but they employ other people, and have added to the British economy.'
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Not everything she's seen on her journey round Britain has been positive though. 'When I was starting out there was a wet fish shop in every neighbourhood. I find it terribly sad that this great island – where people used to eat fish three times a week – no longer has that.
'Also, the chippie isn't what it used to be. The quality used to be excellent – I know because I lived on fish and chips as a student. Now there are good ones, but also some very bad ones.'
The thought of Madhur Jaffrey – so elegant in her flowing scarf and so precise in everything from her diction to her shoes – in a chippie is hilarious, but she's a woman who loves to throw assumptions into the air.
Married twice, and with three grown-up children, she now lives in New York
Perhaps the reason she doesn't see herself as a culinary brand is that she doesn't even see herself as primarily a food writer.
She started out as an actress, has achieved considerable success in everything from Merchant Ivory period films (indeed she was responsible for introducing James Ivory to Ismail Merchant) to EastEnders – and she still considers that to be her raison d'tre.
'I see my main career as acting, although other people don't. This cookery side is totally serendipitous.'
She grew up in Delhi, in considerable affluence, but moved to Britain in the 1950s to take up a place at RADA. She never cooked in India, but when she was a student her mother used to send her recipes and her friends used to flock to her house to taste these recreations of home.
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Madhur Jaffrey, centre, as Pushpa in EastEnders in 2003
Still, the impression is of a woman who's not yet fulfilled her ambitions. 'Oh absolutely,' she says. 'We all want the Oscar. You want to be Marlon Brando. You want to be up there with the Gielguds and the Oliviers.'
She pulls a face when asked about the sort of roles she gets now. She played a psychiatrist in Law & Order.
'Doctors, doctors, doctors. When you have an Indian actor either they're driving taxis – which women don't – or they're doctors, psychiatrists, those kind of professionals.'
Is it disappointing to be pigeonholed, still 'Yes, it always is. What I really want to be is the baddie in a Bond film. But when roles for older women are non-existent, I know I'm lucky to be working at all.'
Now we'll see her being herself, which seems to make her nervous. 'When you spend much of your life playing other people, it's daunting to just be yourself, but in a way this programme isn't about me either – it's about the food.'
Still, for the new book that's coming out to coincide with the series she's been persuaded to pose for rather more pictures than she would have had to do 20 years ago. Does she agree with the cookery-books-as-lifestyle-guides approach that seems to be de rigueur these days
'I think these things go in cycles,' she says. 'I used to be in my books all the time, then they wanted the focus to be more on the food, now it's back to the personality again. I've seen it all.'
Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Nation, Sundays to Thursdays from 4 November, 9pm, Good Food.