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Madhur Jaffrey by Aoife Cox

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Curry Queen

I wanted to go, really I did, but the fact is that I got plastered instead.

Or rather, having taken an unceremonious tumble down the Nepalese Himalayas, it was my foot that got plastered while, somewhat unavoidably, the rest of me had to stay behind to keep it company.

That, at least, is what I felt like saying, in a dog-ate-my-homework kind of way, when, last Saturday, in the Ballymaloe Cookery School, Darina Allen asked who had been to India. An old passport with an Indian visa proves my intent, but a fractured foot dictated otherwise. It is admittedly somewhat dramatic as excuses go, but it didn't change the fundamental answer to the question: no, I had not, to my regret, been to India. And yet I have been tasting India for years, in large part thanks to the woman who stood alongside Darina that morning in the cookery school, the undisputed Queen of Curry, Madhur Jaffrey.

Judging by the old copies of Madhur classics which had been brought along, I was not the only one in attendance who had come to know something of the vibrant flavours of the Indian subcontinent through this venerable lady's recipes. We had discovered colour and spice and had probably all learned the hard way about the potency of teeny dried red chillies (applying that fatally flawed 'ah sure they're only little' logic). And now we were here to see, at first hand, this beloved writer of cookbooks, and she was funny and fabulous and far fresher than her 79 years would have lead you to expect.

She talked affectionately about aloo gobi, a most beloved dish in her native Northern India but tricky, she said, to get the tender, but not falling apart, textures of potato and cauliflower just right. "Indians have a million potato recipes," she said. "Old Indian writings say that the best thing the white man ever brought to India was the potato." At which point I decided that I loved this woman, and her Indian food, even more than ever.

She charmed and cooked in equal measure, and brought a cast of ingredients to life, from turmeric to tamarind and asafoetida to aged basmati. Mustard seeds, she said, were the Jekyll and Hyde of spices, bitter if crushed but nutty when fried in hot oil. Pre-ground coriander she described as sawdust compared to the freshly ground version, while the smell of fenugreek could be expected to emanate from your pores. She said that she would know where she was in India by the smell of their spices, and nobody present doubted that for a second.

I have still not been to India but, suffice to say that, on Saturday, I came just that little bit closer.

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