The Current

85 years gold: Why Madhur Jaffrey would rather spice up her career than slow down

Madhur Jaffrey's latest incarnation as a rapping grandma in a music video is proof that the 85-year-old has no plans of slowing down. The "queen of Indian cooking" discusses her new cookbook, as well as politics, the Instant Pot and her-hip hop cameo with Anna Maria Tremonti.

The Indian-born actor and food writer is known for her cooking, but recently dabbled in an unexpected genre

From Queen of Indian Cooking to 'Bad-Ass Grandma': Madhur Jaffrey reflects on her long and diverse career — including her latest role as rap video star. (Christopher Hirsheimer)

Read Story Transcript

Madhur Jaffrey is the queen of Indian cooking and an award-winning actor — and now she can add "badass" rapping grandma to her resumé.

The 85-year-old food writer and television personality is credited with introducing authentic Indian cuisine to the western world with her 1982 BBC series Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery, and her 1973 cookbook An Invitation to Indian Cooking.

Jaffrey doesn't limit herself to the daytime television sphere, though.

"I don't ever want to stop. I like new things. I like challenges," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Most recently, she dabbled in the music scene by making a cameo the music video Nani, which means maternal grandmother, by hip-hop artist Zohran Mamdani, a.k.a. Mr. Cardamom.

"I'm a gangster," she said with a laugh. "I'm a bad woman."

Warning: Video contains explicit language and graphic content.

Jaffrey's latest roles haven't prevented her from upholding her reputation as the "queen" of Indian cooking. Her latest cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook: Modern and Classic Recipes for the Instant Pot, was released in May.

Tremonti sat down with Jaffrey to discuss her expansive career. Here is part of their conversation.

That's a fun video to watch.

Oh, it was a fun video to do. Such fun, but hard, because it's hard to — I mean they rap so fast, for one thing. So you have to learn all the words, which there are many of them, you have to go fast and you have to follow the beat and it's not always easy.

But because you can act you had the attitude right away.

Food is the glue that holds our family together, in many ways.- Madhur Jaffrey

And the curse words, as it were, they aren't really hard for an actress. You just do them because they're written for you.

How did appearing in that rap video become the next step in your long and storied career?

Well I always take up challenges that are thrown my way. I never let them lie. And I was asked by this wonderful young man, Zohran [Mr. Cardamom], if I would like to be in this rap video and I read it, read the words, I heard the music, and I said "Why not? Yes, yes I'll do it."

I had no great hesitation at all in saying yes. It was just another role and a very different role to anything I'd done.
Madhur Jaffrey won the Best Actress award from the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965 for her performance in Shakespeare Wallah. (David Livingston/Getty Images)

My grandchildren's reaction to the video was: "Nani's cool."

What role does food play in your relationship with your family?

Food is the glue that holds our family together, in many ways.

You meet around food and you talk about food and you dream about food. And our family, everyone likes to cook.

My grandkids have been cooking since they were little. They grew up around food and when they were very little they didn't watch cartoons, most of them. This is funny. They watched food programs on television.

What are some of your earliest food memories growing up?

We were lots of cousins in the same house growing up together. And the little ones, we would always climb the trees, like the mango trees, and we would take salt, pepper, ground-roasted cumin and chili powder in our little palms and we would cut the mangoes, peel the mangoes and eat them with this mixture that we took in our palms. Right in the trees. And that's a wonderful memory.

The funny thing is that I must have had a good palate always. Who knew anything about having a good palate?

I didn't even know the word when I was growing up but now that I look back on it, if you have a good palate it's just like having a good ear.

Any sense that is really developed, you tend to remember what you either see or smell. And ... it's burned into your brain in a deeper way than if you haven't got a developed sense of that particular thing.

People who can create foods or recreate foods — that ability must come from having a good palate and therefore a good memory and therefore good files in the brain that retain all this information.

Your new cookbook is called Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook: Modern and Classic Recipes for the Instant Pot. Why is the Instant Pot particularly good for preparing Indian food?

It's not that it's particularly good. Indians started using the pressure cooker a long time ago, maybe 40 to 50 years ago, just to hasten the cooking of beans and rice and various meat.

But what the Instant Pot does is that it offers many other options. You can sauté. You can slow-cook. You can make perfect rice all by itself.

So what I've done is say: "Okay, I will experiment for you with the pot and work out Indian recipes. I won't dumb them down because as far as what I'm trying to teach you all or pass on to you all is authentic Indian food. So bear with me. It may have a lot of spices in it."

We know the magic of spices. And it's not just flavour — it's health. Each spice has food value, like turmeric is an antiseptic inside the body, outside the body. We don't just like yellow food. That's not why we put turmeric in. There's a medical reason for it.

And I remember when I used to teach cooking, it would be a six-week course and [my students] would say to me: "I'm feeling so much better after these six weeks."

I said that's because I'm feeding you each thing with the spices that make it easier to digest. So that's why you're feeling good.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Alison Masemann.