Madhur Jaffrey’s 11 Essential Books on Indian Food and Cooking

The queen of Indian cooking shares her required reading

byDevra Ferst| PUBLISHED May 3, 2019 2:44 AM
Madhur Jaffrey’s 11 Essential Books on Indian Food and Cooking

Madhur Jaffrey started collecting books by happenstance. "I started looking around for old books without any thought in my head that I would use them one day," she explains. "I like to pick up things that are beautiful." Before books, it was shawls and Indian miniature paintings. Both became too expensive, so she turned to books in antique shops, acquiring historical works like all 26 volumes of The Imperial Gazetteer for $10 or $15.

She started writing articles around the same time, in the early 1970s, she says, "to survive, because I couldn't find acting work." Since then, she's built a career as one of the foremost authorities on Indian cooking, authoring nearly 30 books, including her most recent Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook, a collection of recipes for the Instant Pot.

Jaffrey's home library in her Manhattan apartment is an indispensable resource for her work. Here, she shares 11 volumes she turns to often, from a historical dictionary to a tome on tea to a book written for those training in the hospitality industry in 1960s India. They ground her work, offering a base to build on. “I’m writing contemporary history,” she says. “History is not at any standstill, it goes on, we just record what is happening in our time.”

As for her collecting tendencies, books are getting expensive, Jaffrey adds. So, “I’ll probably find something else.”

Thangam Philip, an instructor at a catering school that trained many of the chefs who worked in India’s hotels in the 1960s, authored this book for the hospitality industry. Sections of the manual break down different elements of cooking like pot- and spit-roasting and discuss the scientific impact of heat on protein and carbohydrates. “This book has a lot of what I do not ever need: European foods and desserts,” Jaffrey explains. “But it is magnificent for giving recipes for Indian pickles, preserves, beverages, snack foods, breads, and fritters. It also has recipes for nearly all Indian main dishes.”
Jaffrey turns to this volume, which doubles as a culinary dictionary and encyclopedia, for background when she's writing about specific foods, she says. Entries range from achar to zakat and include historical context for ingredients from apricots and aniseed to jaggery and jackfruit. It also includes important concepts pertaining to foods in India such as ahimsa, as Achaya writes, 'the concept of non-injury to life, enjoined by the Buddha.'
This is an “excellent history of Indian food, the first of its kind, but much is left out,” Jaffrey explains. It starts with cooking in the Neolithic and Paleolithic eras and leads up to the modern era, and includes art and maps that help flesh out that history, but isn’t exhaustive. “Somebody else has to come along and pick up where he left off,” she adds.
'This is the first cookbook I bought,' Jaffrey reveals. She purchased it around the same time she picked up a copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. While Child exposed Jaffrey to a new cuisine, the recipes in this volume were ones Jaffrey knew well. What stood out to her is that the dishes tasted precisely as she knew they should. 'She had the most authentic recipes,' says Jaffrey.

Food and Drinks in Ancient India From the Earliest Times to c.1200 A.D. by Om Prakash

This history book starts with a chapter on prehistoric civilizations and carries readers through the eras of the early Buddhists, the Gupta period from 300 to 750 A.D., and up to 1200 A.D. Along the way, it offers insight into the use of pulses, alcoholic beverages, fruits, and more in those times. “It’s very dense…[but] it has nuggets, jewels,” Jaffrey says, and adds that she loves to page through books like this. “I love the research more than the writing.”

The most recently published volume on Jaffrey’s list, from 2015, this book starts with a description of Indian geography and climates, offers a useful grid that breaks down the name of foods like various pulses in Hindi, English, and Latin, and includes entries on topics like Hinduism. Woven throughout are maps and reprints of historical artwork pertaining to food. It’s a good place to start for those new to Indian culinary history, Jaffrey says.

The Imperial Gazetteer by Sir William Stevenson Meyer, Sir Richard Burn, James Sutherland Cotton, and Sir Herbert Hope Risley

During our interview, as Jaffrey and I reach this collection of 26 volumes that make up The Imperial Gazetteer, we agree instantly that it is overwhelming. The books, originally printed as 9 volumes in 1881 by British men traveling across India in shorts and small hats called sola topees, document produce, census records, fauna, language, and much more from each region of India. "I always consulted that when I wrote articles...You need those vital statistics to give a sense of the state," Jaffrey says. "To understand today, you have to understand yesterday."

“Anyone you talk to in the tea industry will say: ‘Have you read Ukers?’” Jaffrey says. The 1152-page tome not only covers the history of tea, from its roots in China to its introduction in Europe, but also delves into the technical, scientific, commercial, social, and artistic aspects of tea. While the book was published in 1935, Jaffrey says that she doesn’t know of a contemporary volume that matches its level of detail: “If you’re writing about tea, this is the most valuable book.”
Jaffrey says she can't write without this in-depth glossary, originally published in 1903. It offers not only an explanation of words like achar, but historical quotes using those words. 'You look up hing in that, and you'll just die with amazement and wonder,' Jaffrey says. She pauses to pull the book off her shelf, looking at the entry on chutney with a quotation from 1820. 'I've used those quotations umpteen times,' she adds. 'Little jewels you'll find in there.'