The First Diva of Diaspora: Madhur Jaffrey Becomes First South Asian to Win James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award
- An accomplished actor and television host, she is the author of more than 15 cookbooks and can be credited to have introduced Indian cuisine to the Western world.
The first diva of the Indian diaspora Madhur Jaffrey has become the first South Asian to be honored with the prestigious James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award 2023. The honor is anything but surprising considering that Jaffrey can be credited with introducing Indian cuisine to the Western world, at least in the form of cookbooks and shows. Her 1973 cookbook, “An Invitation to Indian Cooking,” was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006.
James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award “is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, or think about food in America.”
Interestingly, Jaffrey’s passage to fame has not been through the kitchen door, but through films. In college, after graduating from Miranda House at the University of Delhi she moved to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Jaffrey began her acting career in the 1960s and quickly gained recognition for her talent, receiving critical acclaim for her performances.
She was the first Indian actress to receive a major role in a British television series, with her performance in the BBC’s “The Gangsters” in 1975. Once she found a home in the Merchant Ivory production — the legendary Ismail Merchant and James Ivory producer-director duo — she never looked back. She became a transatlantic celebrity. Jaffrey appeared in films such as “Shakespeare Wallah,” “Heat and Dust,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “Flawless.”
Although her enduring fame came through her cookbooks, Jeffrey, who came to be known as the “original Spice Girl,” never learned to cook as a child growing up in Delhi. Raised in an affluent home, by her own admission she had almost never been in the kitchen and almost failed cooking at school. It is just a twist of fate that she came to be known as an “actress who could cook.” A headline of a 1966 New York Times story written by American restaurant critic Craig Claiborne read: “Indian Actress Is a Star in the Kitchen, Too.”
She has written more than 15 books on Indian cuisine, including the highly acclaimed “Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible” and “Flavors of India.” Her books have been translated into multiple languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide.
Jaffrey has also been a popular television presenter, hosting several cooking shows, including “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery” and “Madhur Jaffrey’s Flavors of India.”
During the 1970s, she taught classes in Indian cooking, both at the James A. Beard School of Cooking and in her Manhattan apartment. She also had an Indian cooking show BBC. In 1986, Dawat restaurant opened in Manhattan whose menu was based on her recipes. The only criticism of her cooking prowess reportedly came from social historian Panikos Panayi who described her as “the doyen of Indian cookery writers, but noted that her influence remained limited to Indian cuisine.”
The New York Times recently paid tribute to her saying, “At 89, Ms. Jaffrey shows no signs of slowing down. She continues to publish recipes and articles, appear on podcasts, give interviews and speak in documentaries — even rapping in a music video with the artist Mr. Cardamom.”
Madhur Jaffrey, whose maiden name was Madhur Bahadur, was married to the famed Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey in 1957. They divorced in 1966. They have three children — Zia Jaffrey, Meera Jaffrey and Sakina Jaffrey, who is also an accomplished actress whose credits include, Showtime’s “Billions” and Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Jaffrey married journalist Francis Wilkinson in 1967 and they have two children Cassius and Jamila.