book review: “climbing the mango trees” by madhur jaffrey
Although signs of spring are finally here, it was somewhat cold and gloomy the past couple weeks. Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India was just the book to transport me to balmier climes as I read about Madhur Jaffrey‘s rather idyllic childhood in Delhi in the 1940s. I bought this book a while ago when it first came out in paperback, but with my backlog of must-read books, it took me a while to get to it. However, I’ve been on somewhat of an Indian food kick lately, so, to the top of the pile it rose.
The book was a wonderful example of the memoir-with-emphasis-on-food genre. The stories flowed naturally, and the mentions of food were neither stilted nor overly sentimental. The daily routine in her household compound included meals with 50+ people at a time- parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and the patriarchal paternal grandfather (Babaji) at the helm of it all. In the Indian tradition, adult children (i.e. the male sons and their families) were practically required to live under the same roof as the grandfather, so Jaffrey grew up with dozens of cousins to run around with. Even still, she describes feeling lonely at the center of all that familial chaos. Jaffrey was a bit of a tomboy, but also portrays herself as a “sensitive soul”, which would probably explain her getting into acting in her teens (Jaffrey had a career in film and television before becoming a world-renowned cookbook author).
The family must have been wealthy by Indian standards, as the daily meals described sound like nothing short of a feast. Prepared by servants, with the women of the house contributing some dishes, the meals typically contained several courses, accompanied by an array of chutneys and freshly prepared flatbreads such as parathas and pooris. Dinners were preceded by what the French call l’apéro: drinks and light snacks such as nuts. Eventually, upon Babaji’s cue, the clan would proceed to the dining table, which was so long that you could barely see who was at the other end. The gatherings would continue on into the evening, sometimes with a musical performance or poetry reading, ending only when Babaji was sated.
Jaffrey grew up during a fascinating time in Indian history. The book is set against the backdrop of British colonial rule, the rise of Gandhi and the strife of Independence and Partition. Jaffrey’s family was fortunate to survive that tumultuous period relatively unscathed, but she wistfully describes how the changes affected her young life, such as the fact that most of her Muslim school friends were forced to leave Delhi. In spite of the many unsettling and disruptive aspects of Partition, Jaffrey strikes a positive chord describing all the new foods that that were introduced to Delhi as a result of the migrations of groups from other parts of India. Jaffrey describes the “exotic” foods shared with her by classmates of different religious and ethnic backgrounds- Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, etc. Of course, their food always seemed more appealing than what she had brought in her own lunch box! The popular Delhi restaurant Moti Mahal opened during this time period as well, introducing many of the foods that would become Indian restaurant staples in the U.S.
At the end of the book is a section of family recipes. I made Tahiri (rice & peas) from this book, as well as Aloo Gosht (Meat & Potato Curry) and Kale in Mustard Oil from two of Jaffrey’s other cookbooks. All were absolutely delicious- follow the link above for my post on the Aloo Gosht.