If you’ve ever heard actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey speak, you’ve most likely been enthralled by the lilt of her Anglo-Indian accent, at once friendly and authoritative, lyrical and sophisticated. It’s a voice whose distinctive qualities have made their way into her award-winning cookbooks and most recently into her new book, “Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India” (Knopf, $25).
The book is a vivid, compelling look at her childhood in 1930s and ‘40s India, for the most part in New Delhi, in a huge extended family headed by Jaffrey’s paternal grandfather, a very successful barrister. The particularities of that time and place and of Jaffrey’s large, affluent family with their mix of Hindu and Muslim and British influences -- living together on an estate that included courtyards and annexes and gardens dotted with tamarind and mango and jujube trees -- make for fascinating reading.
A full table
Dinner every night for as many as 40 people was a big, bustling affair. “We children were so far away from the head of the table that I did not know until I was told years later that my grandmother was a vegetarian,” Jaffrey says. And regular picnics were part of the fabric of their lives.
“Preparations for the picnic would begin at dawn. All the short ladies of the house -- and they were all short -- would begin scurrying around in the kitchen.” Jaffrey describes 30 people cramming into two cars for a drive to Qutb Minar, a tower built by Muslims in the 12th century. The payoff after an uncomfortable ride was a meal of potatoes in gingery tomato sauce, fried puff breads, lamb meatballs and homemade pickles.
Memoirs centering around food can easily spiral into the contrived and sentimental, maybe because there are no lifesaving heroics, no history-shifting decisions, no profound public consequences. But Jaffrey includes plenty of political and historical background and, for the most part, avoids the mawkish or affected.
Madhur means “sweet as honey” and the book starts with a description of her grandmother using honey to write the word “om” on her tongue as soon as she was born. Jaffrey says, “I was left with honey on my palate and in my deepest soul.” It’s an overwrought beginning, reminding me of another famous chef’s too-sappy cookbook anecdote: Alice Waters’ description of her infant memory of seeing -- from her baby carriage -- apple blossoms falling from the sky.
But then the book unfolds into a wonderful meandering through family dramas that happen to transpire over cups of tea and personal triumphs that are rewarded with rasgullas (cheese balls in syrup) in terra cotta crocks from New Delhi’s Bengali Market -- still a great place for spicy snacks known as chaat.
The memoir puts the recipes at the end of the book into poignant context. The collection includes 32 family recipes, such as for shami kebabs made with ground lamb that her brothers took with them on hunting trips or her cousin’s chicken curry or ground lamb with peas that served as picnic fare. Each is preceded by one of Jaffrey’s anecdotes or some of her personal comments or helpful tips.
These home-style dishes are delicious, redolent of spices, and usually fairly easy to prepare, though some call for a lot of ingredients -- whole cumin seeds, cardamom pods, asafetida, ground amchoor, a green mango powder. But most are available at the many Indian markets in Southern California and substitutes are given for some of the harder-to-find ingredients, such as lemon juice for amchoor (though lemon juice doesn’t come close to amchoor’s tangy, pungent, slightly bitter, refreshing flavor). Fresh fenugreek greens can be replaced, if necessary, with a combination of cilantro and crumbled dried fenugreek in a recipe for gajar methi, carrot with fenugreek greens.
Simple and sublime
Her “everyday cauliflower” is richly flavored and colored with turmeric, sprinkled with fresh cilantro and green chiles. Ground lamb with peas can be served as an entree, with Indian bread or Jaffrey’s turmeric-tinted pilaf, and also can be used as a filling for samosas.
But if you don’t already know how to make samosas, the recipe is too abbreviated to help you learn the art. The ground lamb with peas is a delicious, delicate filling and the dough recipe she offers, made with clarified butter, is simple to prepare. But I had to refer to a diagram in “Madhur Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking” to figure out how to roll out the dough and shape the samosas. Also, Jaffrey doesn’t give a frying temperature and says the oil should be heated slowly but doesn’t say why.
Hari chutney, a green chutney with cilantro and mint and green chiles, was ground in Jaffrey’s home on a daily basis with a grinding stone, and served at every lunch and dinner, as well as with snacks -- it’s great with samosas. It’s fast and easy, and Jaffrey encourages you to adjust the seasonings to your taste, to make the chutney your own.
It’s surprising that Jaffrey didn’t learn how to cook until she left home; after moving to London to study, she wrote letters home to her mother, begging her for recipes and instruction. Yet it’s no surprise that a life gilded with Jaffrey’s incredible culinary experiences has resulted in so many cookbooks that have ended up on my bookshelves -- there’s no one whose voice I’d rather listen to while making phulka bread or tamarind chutney or even her grandmother’s cauliflower with cheese.