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Madhur Jaffrey’s ‘An Invitation to Indian Cooking’ Introduced Many Americans to a Complex Culinary Tradition

Published in 1973, it wasn’t the first Indian cookbook in this country, but it was the one that caught on

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The cover of the 1973 edition of An Invitation to Indian Cooking: Madhur Jaffrey, wearing a purple sari, stands behind a table full of ingredients. Lille Allen/Eater

Madhur Jaffrey initially became a cookbook author, she writes in the first line of An Invitation to Indian Cooking, “as a gradual maneuver in self-defense.”

She wasn’t defending herself from anything more malevolent than the curiosity of her friends and acquaintances. It was the 1960s, a time when many Americans had never encountered Indian food. That would start to change after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed restrictions against non-white, non-European immigrants to the U.S., opening the doors to people from East and South Asia and Africa and the Middle East. But in the meantime, Jaffrey found herself answering a lot of questions.

She herself was an early arrival: She had come to the U.S. from London in 1958 with the ambition of becoming an actress and the immediate goal of marrying Saeed Jaffrey, an actor whom she had met back in Delhi. Eventually, the Jaffreys settled in Greenwich Village, where they made many friends in the theater world and attended lots of parties. Madhur, who habitually wore a sari and cooked delicious Indian food at her own dinner parties, became a target for her friends’ curiosity about this new-to-them cuisine. Mostly they were seeking restaurant recommendations, which seemed harmless enough.

The problem was, Jaffrey explains in An Invitation’s introduction, most Indian restaurants in New York at the time were terrible. They were generally run by sailors with no previous cooking experience who had decided that Americans would be put off by specific regional dishes and instead served what Jaffrey describes as “a generalized Indian food from no specific area whatsoever.” The only good Indian food in New York, Jaffrey would tell her friends, was at Indian people’s houses. So then, of course, she would have to invite them over. And their curiosity became oppressive.

After a while, Jaffrey got tired of her role as the sole source of decent Indian food in the Village. It was also expensive: Her divorce from Saeed left her the single mother of three young daughters. Not many casting agents were interested in hiring a South Asian actress, so she began copying her most popular recipes and handing them out to curious acquaintances.

At the time, Jaffrey was eking out a living as a freelance writer and by teaching cooking classes with one of her Village neighbors, who happened to be James Beard. In 1965, she finally got a starring role in the movie Shakespeare Wallah, an early effort from the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory (introduced to each other by Jaffrey and her ex-husband). Jaffrey played a Bollywood star and won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. To promote the film’s American release the following year, a brief article by Craig Claiborne ran in the New York Times under the headline “Indian Actress Is a Star in the Kitchen, Too.” It described dinner parties where guests “dine on the foods of India, China and France” and included recipes for stuffed peppers, kofta in sour cream, and raita. The accompanying photo showed Jaffrey in her tiny New York kitchen with its well-stocked spice rack, looking glamorous in a sari as she spooned spiced potatoes into green peppers.

After that, it seemed inevitable that she would come to the attention of Judith Jones, the cookbook editor at Alfred A. Knopf who had become a legend a decade earlier when she shepherded Mastering the Art of French Cooking into print. An Invitation to Indian Cooking made its debut in April 1973, allowing Americans everywhere to try Jaffrey’s dals, chutneys, raitas, koftas, and, especially, her grilled butterflied leg of lamb, a universal crowd-pleaser among her New York acquaintances. (In November, Knopf will release a special 50th-anniversary edition with an introduction by Yotam Ottolenghi.)

Jaffrey deliberately structured An Invitation to, as she puts it, “lure” her American readers into a sense of familiarity with simpler Indian recipes, gradually building their confidence until they felt ready to tackle elaborate banquet dishes like pulao and biryani. Along the way, she cheerfully dismantled some common myths about Indian food, some of which have managed to endure 50 years later: It’s not always spicy! (Her own father, definitely Indian, disliked spicy food, so she didn’t eat much of it growing up.) There are lots of spices, it’s true, but many, such as cinnamon, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, and black pepper, were fairly common in American kitchens, even in 1973. (For the rest, notably asafetida, Jaffrey provides a list of spice shops that offered mail order at the time.) People in India eat beef: Think of all the Muslims, Christians, and nonobservant Hindus. And most of all, no Indian cook has ever used curry powder! (In a short skit, Jaffrey imagines curry powder was born when, in order to appease a British officer who was preparing to return home and wanted to re-create Indian food in his own kitchen in Surrey, an Indian cook threw handfuls of random spices into a box. “Sa’ab, if your friend also like, for a sum of two rupees each, I can make more boxes for them as well…”)

There were Indian cookbooks in America before An Invitation, but Jaffrey’s was the one that caught on. Part of it had to do with her own style and charisma and sense of humor that gently mocked the idea of the “exotic” Indian. (“I was the original spice girl,” she joked to the New York Times many years later.) The other part of it was her approach, similar to the way Julia Child introduced Americans to French food: Here is an old and complex culinary tradition that you, the average American, may be terrified to attempt, but really, there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. We’ll even use groceries you can find at your local supermarket because American meats and vegetables are not the same as those we use in India. And I will be your guide every step of the way because I, too, did not learn to cook this food until I was an adult, so I know exactly where you’re coming from.

Jaffrey did not pretend to be an authority on all of Indian cuisine. It was too broad and diverse for that, and basic definitions of regional cuisines didn’t account for the differences between Muslim and Hindu styles of cooking. As she writes in her memoir Climbing the Mango Trees, “It was not so much the ingredients … as the hand that put these ingredients together, and the order and timing it chose to use.”

Instead, she took a personal approach and avoided making generalizations about Indian food; those she left to the anthropologists. The dishes in An Invitation, she emphasizes, were ones she personally ate growing up in a well-to-do Westernized Hindu family in Delhi, and many of the recipes came from her mother, who had sent them to her when she was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and found that the dorm meals were too appalling to eat. When ingredients were unavailable, Jaffrey devised work-arounds, like using canned tomatoes instead of fresh and pumpernickel bread in place of chapatis. Later, in America, she learned to adapt cooking times because American meats contain more water, and to substitute a blender for a mortar and pestle and a stove burner for hot ashes.

I truly wish that the next time anyone thinks about making yet another movie or TV show about Julia Child, they would stop and pick up Climbing the Mango Trees instead. Jaffrey includes a few descriptions of how and what her family ate in An Invitation, but in Climbing the Mango Trees, she tells the full story of her childhood growing up in a multigenerational “joint family” house in pre-independence Delhi in the 1930s and ’40s ruled by her paternal grandfather — Babaji — and surrounded by dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, plus a full staff of servants.

The book is full of food; it seems like no one ever stopped eating. “When I left India to study in England,” Jaffrey writes, “I could not cook at all, but my palate had already recorded millions of flavors.” There are formal dinners presided over by Babaji, early-morning glasses of milk fresh from the cow, picnics in the Himalayas where the family migrated en masse every summer, visits to the toffee man before arithmetic lessons, lunches assembled from the pooled contents of her Muslim and Hindu classmates’ tiffins (a practice, she notes sadly, that ended after Partition and her Muslim friends migrated to Pakistan), plus the amazement of discovering new forms of Indian food, like the tandoori chicken, naan, and kali dal at Moti Mahal, a Delhi restaurant opened by migrants from Punjab.

Nothing I made from An Invitation tasted as good as anything Jaffrey describes in Mango Trees, but I didn’t really expect it to. I am coming to realize that most food in real life does not live up to food in food memoirs. I was just pleased that it was not a complete and utter disaster. The first thing I made was kheema with fried onions, a variation of a popular spicy ground beef dish, because Jaffrey says that kheema is the first dish every Indian student abroad learns how to make and that this particular variation is her favorite. It’s not typical Indian restaurant fare, and I had never tasted it before except as a stuffing in samosas. It was not a quick, 15-minute meal. When she wrote her recipes, Jaffrey compromised on ingredients because it was necessary, but she stayed faithful to the process. Indian cooking requires patience, a careful layering of flavors. As Jaffrey explains in her introduction, the way a spice tastes in the finished product depends on how it’s treated during the cooking process. It’s almost like another language: The spices are the vocabulary, and the preparations — whether you fry or blend or saute them — are the grammar. You need to pay attention.

I paid close attention to the kheema, and it turned out well, a complex mix of spices with a surprising crunch from the onions. This was at the end of a series of unsuccessful cooking experiences, so I nearly buried my nose in my bowl and kept murmuring, “This is so good,” possibly in gratitude or maybe just relief.

I did not pay as close attention to the broiled chicken strips, which Jaffrey claims were always a big crowd-pleaser at her parties. The mixing of the marinade had gone well, the chicken strips had spent a happy day wallowing in the refrigerator, but during the crucial last step — the broiling — I walked away, probably to look at something dumb on the internet, and when I came back, the whole thing was severely overcooked. There were a few pieces that were still edible. “I can see what you were trying to do,” my partner said too kindly.

The parathas, which Jaffrey promises are “triangular in shape, flaky, and very delicate” (maybe like a croissant?) turned out, in my inexperienced hands, to be a bit heavier and more ungainly, more like a biscuit, but they were still very good. But the best dish of all was cauliflower with ginger and Chinese parsley. I ate it in a bowl, unaccompanied. It did not taste like anything I’d ever eaten at an Indian restaurant. Or even from Trader Joe’s. It was rough and homemade, not slick and practiced and intended to impress. But the flavors were strong — ginger and cumin in the lead, with some sourness from lemon juice and a little bit of heat from cayenne pepper (Jaffrey’s alternative to fresh green chile; poblanos or jalapenos are absolutely forbidden). They are flavors that make you sit up and pay attention.

No cookbook, of course, can replace years of practice, what Jaffrey in Mango Trees calls the rhythm and energy of the hand of an experienced cook. But she promises “an invitation,” and that is what she has delivered. Welcome to Indian cooking. It is yours to explore. Now please stop bothering the nice lady in the sari.

Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.