City Food – Madhur Jaffrey’s First Book, Delhi’s Most Iconic Cookbook
A culinary legend.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Attired in a Kanjeevaram silk sari, Madhur Jaffrey looks squarely at the potential buyer, her arms resting daintily on a chopping board. This was her first book’s cover, the year was 1973.
An Invitation to Indian Cooking is Delhi’s most iconic cookbook. With 200 recipes, it introduced Delhi cuisine to the West. The New York Times called it “the best Indian cookbook available in English”.
Every great city has books devoted to it but only a few help spread its fame across the world. No understanding of the Capital can be complete without leafing through this book, even if food writing isn’t your thing. Sadly, it’s rarely sighted in the city’s bookstores.
“It’s a classic,” confirms author Pushpesh Pant, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Delhi cuisine. “Madhur belongs to an old Kayastha family in Civil Lines. Her love for food and Delhi, her elegance, her evocative writing, and her reputation as an actor in Merchant-Ivory films worked efficiently to introduce our city’s cuisine to the West.”
An alumnus of Delhi University’s Miranda House, Ms Jaffrey left her hometown long ago for the UK, then to the US where she lives in New York, aged 87, enjoying renown as a food writer and actor.
Published by Alfred A Knopf, Invitation was edited by the legendary Judith Jones, who worked on the books of culinary greats Julia Child, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden and Edna Lewis. In her book, Ms Jaffrey told readers that she would give them a “chance to understand and cook the food of one specific area — the region in and around Delhi”. She traces the origins of Delhi’s cuisine to the royal kitchens of the Red Fort, where the Persian meat and rice favoured by the Mughals was combined with Indian spices and vegetable dishes.
Smattered with charming vignettes, the cookbook can be enjoyed for reading pleasure alone. The glossary consists of phrases as cute as “Dey Dal May Pani (put water in the lentils)”, “Quon Bhai Chai Hojai (Well now brother, how about tea?)” and “Sharabi Kababi (one who likes to eat and drink)”.
Delhi’s cuisine, however, have grown vastly varied over the years, making the book more of a museum to what the city once was. “An ideal city cookbook should tell you not about the nihari of Karim’s,” warns Mr Pant, “but about the litti chokha of Gurugram’s Sector 23 Market, the chop of Mayapuri, and the Moradabad Biryani of Vasant Kunj. The perfect cookbook must be super-local.”
True, and Ms Jafrrey’s cookbook made our city’s khana super-global.
For the “sharabi kebabi”