Julie and Julia, Madhur and Me

09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Julie and Julia is my story. Except my Julia Child was Madhur Jaffrey, doyenne of Indian cooking in the West.

The other difference -- instead of a rather self-absorbed, somewhat petulant blogger, I was a clueless sheltered momma's boy immigrant loose in middle America, barely knowing how to boil an egg.

Julie Powell knew how to cook. She just needed a project she could finish and blog about and then get a book deal. I needed to survive without mom's home cooking.

And just as Julia Child was there by Julie's side like some "great big good fairy" I had Madhur Jaffrey.

Or rather Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking.

Madhur Jaffrey's Quick and Easy Indian Cooking

Madhur Jaffrey's Illustrated Indian Cookery.

When I left India to come to America, my mother found an old diary and wrote down what she hoped would be an immigrant son's survival guide in the Midwest. How to boil an egg was the first entry. Then how to scramble it. Then an omelet, followed by an omelet curry. And in a nod to my new American life -- something called Cowboy Eggs. It involved a poached egg and I was never brave enough to try that. (I was delighted to find Julie Powell had a lot of trouble with a poached egg as well.)

I wondered how many variations of egg curry I could make.

Then I discovered Madhur Jaffrey.

In the film Julie and Julia, Julia Child wants a cookbook for the servant-less American cook. That's exactly what Madhur Jaffrey rustled up for the Western kitchen -- Indian cooking that didn't leave you exhausted in a mountain of chopped onions while the dal boiled over. Little did she realize her cookbooks would become the lifesaver for generations of H1-B engineers, freshly shipped out from India.

I didn't blog about Madhur Jaffrey for there were no blogs then. You just stood in the kitchen in your old t-shirt, blowing at the frothy scum gathering on top of the dal as it bubbled on the stove. Your roommate offered useless advice on how not to tear up as you chopped onions. We burned the onions. We set off the smoke alarm. We went through packets of frozen peas while old Hindi film songs trilled from the boombox someone placed on the dining table.

But we also learned how to make a batch of garam masala and keep it fresh. We learned that jaiphal was nutmeg and kalonji was nigella. And Madhur Jaffrey explained to us the techniques our mothers took for granted. Baghaar -- "oil is heated until it is extremely hot, but not burning. Then spices, generally whole ones, or else chopped up garlic and ginger, are added to the oil. The seasonings immediately begin to swell, brown, pop or otherwise change character."

In Julie and Julia, the New York Times food critic wonders if Julia Child was like Julie Powell's "imaginary friend" guiding her through cassoulets and soufflés, lifting her up from meltdowns.

Madhur Jaffrey was not imaginary. When as a journalist I finally got to interview her I was just a bundle of nerves. Just call her in New York, a friend said. I did. And she picked up the phone. That voice was unmistakable. She gave me her address. It was as if she said "2 lbs chicken pieces skinned, 1 tablespoon ground cumin seeds, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 teaspoons cayenne pepper.

I hyperventilated at the thought of meeting Madhur Jaffrey just as Julie Powell fantasized about meeting Julia Child. I didn't imagine we'd bond over a garlic crusher but I am sure I was imagining country home parties with deboned chickens stuffed with basmati rice. I was imagining telling her how her oil-splattered book gave me a taste of home in a forlorn university town. And she would stay "It's raining outside. Would you like to stay for dinner? It will just be a simple dal-chawal." And thus would begin a lifelong friendship swapping recipes. "Oh but Sandip, you must introduce me to your mother," she would say. "I have to learn how to make a Bengali style cauliflower chhechki."

But of course it was nothing like that. I was the bumbling journalist perched at the edge of her sofa. Madhur Jaffrey was the polite grand dame that she is, patiently answering questions she must have heard a hundred times before.

She offered me a cup of tea. I don't think I drank it. I was too afraid of knocking it over. I took a picture and left. She saw me to the door and shook my hand.

I had taken my Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking with me. She autographed it. "Sandip, wonderful to meet you." She might even have meant it.

I didn't care. She had just met me. But I'd already met her in my head long ago in my cramped studio kitchen with my cheap non-stick frying pans. And she'd saved me from a lifetime of omlette curries.

Madur Jaffrey and the H1-B Engineer. Who will make that movie?