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First South Asian To Win the James Beard Lifetime Award: Who Is Madhur Jaffrey?

Hailed as the ‘First Lady of Global Indian Cuisine’, Jaffrey is an actor, a food and travel writer, and TV star.

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India-born British-American Madhur Jaffrey was honored with the James Beard Foundation’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award, becoming the first South Asian to win the prestigious award since the its establishment in 1990. 

The ‘First Lady of Global Indian Cuisine,’ Jaffrey has written numerous cookbooks and has hosted immensely popular television programs, like Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, which first aired in the United Kingdom in 1982. She is also a renowned actor, a food and travel writer, and a television personality.

Hailed as the ‘First Lady of Global Indian Cuisine’, Jaffrey is an actor, a food and travel writer, and a television personality.

This Award makes her a nine-time James Beard Award winner and the Foundation has also recognised ‘From Curries to Kebabs’ (2004), ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s Step-by-Step Cooking’ (2002), ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian’ (2000), and ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of the Far East’ (1994), a collection of her cookbooks.

“It’s a wonderful pinnacle to my career and I’m overjoyed,” Jaffrey said in a press release.

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Early Beginnings 

Jeffrey was born in Delhi’s Civil Lines in 1993, the fifth of six children to Lala Raj Bans Bahadur and his wife, Kashmiran Rani. She grew in the midst  of the Indian independence movement and witnessed the Partition and its violent repercussions in India.  

In her memoir "Climbing the Mango Trees," published in 2006, Jaffrey reminisces about her childhood spent in her ancestral bungalow, named after her grandfather Rai Bahadur Raj Narain, located on Raj Narain Marg.

Jaffrey was a supporter of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence from British rule. As a part of her commitment to the movement, she took time each day to spin khadi, a type of hand-spun and hand-woven cloth, and contributed several large spools of thread to a central collection center in Delhi.

Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience inspired many individuals like Jaffrey to actively participate in the Indian independence movement.

Her love for the stage showed early, almost at the age of five, when she played the role of the brown mouse in a musical version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Moreover, during her time at Delhi University’s Miranda House, where she gained a B.A. degree in English Honours with a minor in philosophy, Jaffrey would actively take part in theatre during her college years. She was also a part of all-women productions of Hamlet and The Importance of Being Earnest.

After her graduation, Jaffrey joined All India Radio (AIR), where she met her first-husband, late British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey, who was an announcer at AIR. 

She also met British novelist  Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had moved to Civil Lines, Delhi, in 1951. 

Growing up in the British Raj was no easy feat for Jaffrey. The colonial rule had a profound impact on Indian society, and Jaffrey's family was no exception. But her family’s financial stability enabled her to receive a quality education, and she eventually went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.  

She went on to star in several other films that tackled critical themes, with one of her most notable films is "Shatranj Ke Khilari" (The Chess Players), directed by Satyajit Ray. 

The film, set in 19th-century India, tells the story of two wealthy, aristocratic men who are obsessed with playing chess. Her performance as a pawn in the film in the film is widely regarded as one of her best and has earned her critical acclaim. She also appeared in "Heat and Dust," which won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

In addition to her work in Indian cinema, Madhur Jaffrey has also appeared in several Hollywood films. She played the role of the queen in the science-fiction film "Star Trek: Voyager," and had a small but memorable role in the romantic comedy "It's a Wonderful Afterlife." 

 Jaffrey has also made history after her performance in "Shakespeare Wallah" in 1965 made her the only Indian actress to ever receive the "Best Actress" award at the Berlin Film Festival. 

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More recently, she made an appearance in one of the episodes of the "Sex and the City" spinoff series "And Just Like That". She portrayed the character of Sarita Choudhury's mother, a real estate agent of Indian-American descent.

However, Jaffrey's talents extended beyond acting and she is credited for bringing  Indian cuisine to the Western world

The First Lady of Global Indian Cuisine

Jaffrey always  had a passion for cooking, which she learned from her mother and grandmother

She began experimenting with Indian recipes while studying in London, and her love for cooking eventually led her to write her first cookbook, "," which was published in 1973. 

The book was a critical success and helped introduce Indian cuisine to a wider audience in the West and her success as a cookbook author paved the way for her to become a prominent figure in the culinary world. 

She went on to write several more cookbooks, including "Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian" and "Madhur Jaffrey's Quick & Easy Indian Cooking." Her recipes are renowned for their authenticity and flavor, and Jaffrey's passion for Indian cuisine has inspired many to explore rich and diverse flavors of Indian cooking.

Her contribution to Indian cuisine has also been recognized by the Indian government, which awarded her the Padma Shri in 1983, one of India's highest civilian honors.

As a cultural ambassador, she has helped to promote greater understanding and appreciation between the two countries through their shared love of food.

Her cookbooks and television shows have made Indian cuisine more accessible to the British public and have helped to break down cultural barriers.

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In 2004, for her contributions towards building cultural relationships between India, UK and the US, through her films, television appearances and cookery, he was made the honorary ‘Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ (CBE).

Moreover, Jaffrey's commitment to social justice and activism is another aspect of her life that is worth noting. She was a supporter of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence from British rule, and she actively participated in the movement.

As part of her commitment, she spun khadi,  a hand-spun and hand-woven cloth, inspired by  Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. Many say that her contribution to the movement is a testament to her commitment to social justice and equality.

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