Madhur Jaffrey on Indian Cooking and Staying Creative As You Age
There are many ways to live a healthy life. The Health Diaries is a weekly series about the habits that keep notable people living well.
Madhur Jaffrey is one of the most prolifically creative people of her time. The 85-year-old Indian-born actress has also worked as a food and travel writer, and TV personality. She’s written over a dozen cookbooks (her newest, Madhur Jaffrey’s Instantly Indian Cookbook: Modern and Classic Recipes for the Instant Pot, is available now). She had her own food-based TV program in the U.K. in the ’80s, and she was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire around the same time, thanks to her focus on bringing the U.S., U.K., and India together over culinary commonalities. And then there’s her new rap video, “Nani,” which she recently released with up-and-coming artist Zohran Mamdani, a young Queens MC who calls himself Mr. Cardamom. And that’s just a small portion of her resume.
This week, Jaffrey talks with Elemental about her irregular schedule, her mind-over-matter philosophy on life, and the way she’s maintained her creativity over the years.
Because of my theater and writing background, and because my husband is a musician, we don’t have any kind of routine for getting up or going to bed. We stay up late and we get up when we get up, unless there’s something to do. If someone says “I’ll call you at 9 o’clock,” I demure and say, “Can you find a later time?” I’m definitely not early to bed and early to rise. I’m more late to bed, late to rise.
I struggle out of bed every morning. When you’re 85, you have every disease known to man. I have umpteen pills to take, and I check my weight and take my medicines, whatever they are. Then I wait because I’m not supposed to eat immediately after taking one of them, so I go to my computer and look at my email.
When I was a kid, I ate white toast with cheese and tomato every day. But now I have to be careful, so I usually eat some kind of grainy toast with no cheese on it, although the tomato stays. I’ll take one sardine and put it on my toast, spread it out, then put a layer of Indian pickles to give it some jolt. Then I put my slice of tomato on top, with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and now my sandwich is ready. I have it with either decaf coffee or Indian tea. I can’t have caffeinated coffee.
I take some supplements and vitamins, too. I take probiotics and then coenzyme Q10 for the heart. I also have berries every day, usually a combination of blueberries, raspberries, and golden berries.
It’s usually 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. by the time I eat my breakfast. Then around 4 p.m., I get a little bit hungry again. Dinner is also a small meal for us. By then, it’s usually quite late, 9:30 or 10 p.m. I usually eat a piece of fish grilled or cooked in an Indian way, with veggies on the side. I try not to have starch at night. But if I’m entertaining for dinner, then I go crazy. I drive myself to the point where I am exhausted because I’ve cooked so much, but then it’s wonderful to recover in bed.
After dinner, we watch some television. I like to watch drama shows and my husband likes to watch news shows. Either that, or we go out. And sometimes, we are traveling. We go to bed when we’re tired.
I exercise regularly but I also fall off the wagon regularly. At my age, when you get sick, it takes a while to recover! And exercise is so easy to postpone. When I do exercise, I have an hour-long routine that includes walking, weights, balance exercises, strengthening my legs by sitting and standing on a chair, exercises for my back, all of that kind of stuff.
I love to drink whiskey but I am trying not to. That’s a big change for me. I look at it longingly but I have it seldom, now. The same goes for wine. I like to have a glass of wine every night for dinner but I’m doing that less and less. Sometimes I’ll cut my wine with seltzer just so I can have a glass in my hand to feel like I’m actively drinking it — but then I’m not taking in the sugar and calories. Basically, I cheat!
To me, “healthy” means I have the energy to do what I want to do. At my age, your sight and hearing are affected and things begin to fade. You have to be alert to everything. So when I get up and have the energy to do what I want, I can plow through a lot of my physical problems. I just ignore them and I keep going. I think if you fall into the physical pain and say “Oh my god, I am suffering,” you will never get out of bed. So I tell myself to shut up. My mind is stronger than the rest of me.
I’m heavily promoting my new cookbook right now and also talking about my new rap video. The rap video happened because I met this young man and I thought, I will help him. I do this for students at NYU a lot, especially when they are making their first film. If they sound young, intelligent, and enthusiastic, and their first work has potential, I will help them because I want to encourage them. We shot this video in two days and they were very happy days; all of his friends were so full of energy, happiness, drive, and ambition. I would have been one of them if I was their age. The hardest part for me was the rapping. I had to stay with the beat and it was very fast. I studied the lyrics for months before we shot. I also used all of my own clothes, jewelry, and shoes in the video. I had an idea about how this woman would be: goddess-like, but also in her mind she was young and free as a bird.
My new cookbook is about how to make Indian food with an Instant pot. The last thing you want is for Indian rice to be al dente; if you do that, you’ve made terrible rice. So in this book, I say: Follow my recipe, hit the right buttons, and it’ll come out perfect. You will never make bad rice. This is also true for the other recipes, which include mushrooms and beans and delicious things that people can make easily.
I stay busy because I love working and I love new ideas. Whatever I’m writing about or working on, I’m doing it because I love the idea. I will do any project if I feel enthusiastic about it and I find that the energy just comes quite naturally to me. It’s all mental energy; physically I’m exhausted, but mentally I have a lot there. I can create out of nothing and I hope this is true for the rest of my life.