By Bonnie Johnson
December 08, 1986 12:00 PM

Two years ago Madhur Jaffrey, an acclaimed Indian actress and author, visited a Hindu temple in South India where the monks make a rice and lentil dish called Kanchipuram idli. “They prepare it all morning,” recalls Jaffrey’s daughter, Sakina, 24, who was traveling with her mother. “It was supposed to be given to the gods. But Mother is so conniving! She talked to this monk and managed to get a piece of it. If she can get food that’s meant for the gods,” concludes Sakina, “she can find out anything.”

Jaffrey’s persuasive powers have paid off impressively in her latest book, A Taste of India (Atheueum, $29.95). Hailed by Gourmet’s Leo Lerman as “not only the best Indian cookbook, but a unique book about India,” it is, Jaffrey points out, the first to detail Indian cuisine region by region. She collected the recipes over 15 years of knocking on doors, “bowl in hand,” across her homeland. The book grew out of her dislike for the predictable, usually undistinguished food being served in America’s Indian restaurants. Curry powder, for example, a stateside staple of Indian food, doesn’t exist as such in the Indian culinary lexicon. “For every dish there is a different blend of spices. My country hides its treasures in millions of private homes, rich and poor,” says the 53-year-old author.

To discover and record India’s cooking secrets, Jaffrey worked with people from a multitude of religions, classes and cultures. “India is more like a federation of countries,” she explains. “There are more than 20 major languages and 1,000 dialects, and the differences in food are as great as between Swedish and Italian.” They range, for example, from the hot and spicy, mostly vegetarian cuisine in the Southern states like Kerala to the mild and fragrant lamb and yogurt dishes of Kashmir in the north. Then there was the problem of persuading sometimes-reluctant chefs to part with prized recipes. She wasn’t always successful. A cook in Hyderabad gave Jaffrey a recipe for hard-boiled eggs in a tomato sauce. But when Jaffrey tried to duplicate it, she says, “I realized that the main ingredient that binds the whole thing together had been left out. I think she did it on purpose.”

Jaffrey’s interest in cooking grew out of necessity. One of six children of a wealthy Delhi businessman, she was 20 when she won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Hungry for a taste of home (“I couldn’t do even the basics”), she wrote to her mother in India, asking for favorite recipes, which she then learned to adapt using English ingredients.

Jaffrey graduated with honors from RADA in 1957 and the following year married actor Saeed (My Beautiful Laundrette) Jaffrey, father of her daughters, Sakina and Meera, 26, and Zia, 27. The couple moved to New York and divorced in 1964. Madhur went on to win praise for her roles in such Anglo-Indian films as Shakespeare Wallah and Diary of a Princess. In 1966 an article about her cooking in the New York Times led to a book contract and her second career was launched.

Acting remains her first love; she most recently starred in Universal’s Heat and Dust and The Assam Garden with Deborah Kerr, and has just finished a successful stage run in Medea in London. Her cooking career, meanwhile, included teaching classes in the kitchen of the late James Beard. She has now produced five books on Indian cuisine and a hit BBC cooking program, which has been seen on PBS. Still the painstaking process of testing each recipe remains the same. She tried and discarded some 900 “mediocre” recipes before choosing the 100 that make up A Taste of India. Working either out of her Greenwich Village coop or her country home in Columbia County, N.Y., Jaffrey tries out her recipes on friends, including food critic Craig Claiborne, but more often the guinea pigs are her children and her second husband, former New York Philharmonic violinist Sanford Allen, 47.

They don’t mind. In fact, they’ve become fine chefs, especially Allen. “He’s a very good Chinese, French and Italian cook,” says Jaffrey proudly. But he won’t even try cooking Indian style. “Madhur is so good that I won’t touch it,” he says, “but then, she doesn’t play the violin, either.”