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From India, with love! Two women and their BBC stint made desi food a global favourite

Madhur Jaffrey realised her TV show on how to cook Indian food, the first broadcast 40 years ago on BBC, was going to be a success while shooting an episode. The recording staff loved the smells, she recalls, and “the minute I finished cooking, they were ready to eat”.

It might seem hard to believe in our food show-saturated world, but in 1982, despite Julia Child’s success in the US, cooking shows weren’t seen as important. But the BBC, as part of its mission “to inform, educate and entertain”, had a Continuing Education Advisory Council which was allocated the 7 pm prime time slot on BBC 2.

In 1978, this time slot was used to launch Delia Smith’s show, which educated viewers on basic cookery. It was such a hit that the BBC wanted a follow-up. Curry restaurants were very popular then, but few people in the UK cooked Indian food at home. The BBC decided to try an Indian cooking show fronted by Jaffrey, who was a trained actor. Her impact was huge — supermarkets ran out of fresh coriander after she used it in a chicken recipe. The show helped establish Jaffrey’s culinary career and the value of food TV.

The impact wasn’t confined to the UK. The show also came with a book tie-in, again a new concept at the time, which also became a bestseller. It was also picked up by TV channels around the world. In Archana Pidathala’s new book 'Why Cook', which profiles 17 women through their food, she writes about Shree Mirji, who saw the show as a young Air Force wife during a Jammu winter. It inspired her to start cooking and documenting food. She even named her daughter Madhur.

The impact of Jaffrey’s show is one of the stories recalled by the BBC as part of its centennial celebrations this year. But there were earlier examples of Indian food on BBC radio broadcasts too. One such fascinating broadcast was performed by Venu Chitale, a young woman from Kolhapur who was studying in the UK when World War II began. She started working with George Orwell, who was producing broadcasts for the BBC’s ‘Eastern Service’, aimed at India. She was soon put in charge of Marathi broadcasts.

Chitale took the initiative to suggest to Orwell’s wife, Eileen Blair, who was with Britain’s Ministry of Food, that they broadcast recipes to India: “Scones and biscuits — things made on top of the heat sound simply ideal,” she wrote, presumably keeping in mind that Indian housewives had tavas, but not ovens. She also broadcast to the British the value of vegetarian food, which was important since meat was rationed due to wartime scarcity.

In a 1940 broadcast, Chitale recounted how, despite many people telling her she must eat meat to survive, she had remained vegetarian and healthy. She explained that Indian food was more than curries, and as an example, suggested vegetarian substitutes for meat, such as ‘bean sausages’ — like kebabs made from mashed dal. Most Britons back then only ate rice in puddings, so she devised a ‘cheese pulao’ to tempt them to try it as a main dish.

Chitale also realised that the British habit of boiling vegetables in lots of water wasted nutrients and made them tasteless. Boiled cabbage was a particular plague, with its distinctive dreary smell. Chitale suggested cooking chopped cabbage by itself in a closed pot, with just some fat, so it steamed to softness in its own moisture. It is a reminder of how meltingly savoury Indian styles of cooking cabbage are, obviously with added spices.

These lessons are still worth learning, both in India and abroad, especially as climate change makes large-scale eating of meat increasingly questionable. Jaffrey would also go on to promote vegetarian cooking as much, or even more than meat. The BBC could build on this history, with more programmes promoting Indian vegetables-focused food.


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