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Days of milk and honey

(article, Emily Stone)

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Born in Delhi, the celebrated Indian actress and James Beard Award-winning food writer Madhur Jaffrey is experienced in telling stories of the subcontinent. Starting in the 1960s, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant cast her in their films “Shakespeare Wallah,” “Autobiography of a Princess,” and “Heat and Dust.” Her performances captured the enthralling ironies of the subcontinent’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-traditional culture. 

But Jaffrey (whose first name means “sweet as honey”) is most familiar in both British and American households for the unfailing insight of her many bestselling cookbooks about Indian food (Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking, Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, etc.). Her new memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, was greeted ecstatically by fans in Britain and is now available in the U.S.

Climbing the Mango Trees is an expansive story of the Delhi of Jaffrey’s childhood before the 1947 partition of India, when less than a million people lived in the city (as opposed to the 14 million of today). Most of her childhood and teenage years were shared with a lengthy roster of siblings and cousins who, with their parents, occupied a compound of sprawling houses on the outskirts of India’s capital. 

Meals were elaborate and extensive events with up to 40 guests, presided over by Jaffrey’s grandfather, the family patriarch. Her upbringing was decidedly upper class, and many Western readers will be taken aback by descriptions of the army of servants called upon to lay tablecloths for the children’s school lunches and to carry enough food to stock a restaurant kitchen to Himalayan picnics.

Jaffrey has a deep, ancestral motivation to record this tale on paper. She explains that her family belongs to a specialized sub-caste known as the Mathur Kayasthas. At the founding moment of Hindu theology, the Kayasthas (who couldn’t fit easily into any of the major caste categories) were assigned to the roles of scribes and record keepers. They would be the religion’s official intellectuals. 

In more recent generations, storytelling and the recording of history have been equally important to Jaffrey’s family. One of her fondest memories is of discovering the “Red Book,” chronicling the history of her family in a country that was once ruled by Moghul emperors and later by the British. 

“I loved history in school,” Jaffrey writes in one of the early chapters of Climbing the Mango Trees. She obviously never grew out of the infatuation, since she conducts a staggering amount of scholarly research for each of her books. 

She introduces her recently published Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible (a veritable encyclopedia, so far available only in the UK) by saying, “I will start in prehistory. With India, you have to.” Named Cookery Book of the Year in 2004 by the British Guild of Food Writers, the Ultimate Curry Bible is a global study that traces the impact of Indian spices and preparation techniques on a diverse range of dishes from contemporary India, Thailand, South Africa, Great Britain, and Trinidad. 

Jaffrey uses the same telescopic lens in Climbing the Mango Trees, turning it in the other direction. She moves from the outside in, demonstrating how centuries of interaction between disparate cultural groups accounts for the richness and complexity of Indian cuisine. 

One of Jaffrey’s ancestors served as finance minister to a Moghul emperor in the 17th century, and she frequently discusses the ways in which her classically Hindu family adopted many of the customs of the Muslim Moghuls. The men in her family, she writes, “all loved Muslim foods ... They liked the kebabs, especially the satiny, crumbling-at-the-touch, tubular seekh kebabs, made by wrapping very finely ground, perfectly seasoned meat around thick skewers and grilling them on charcoal braziers.” (In the Ultimate Curry Bible, Jaffrey declares that, “in culinary terms, the coming of a succession of Islamic conquerors was a win-win situation.”) 

Her running commentary on the lunches eaten by her schoolmates (Anglo-Indian spiced-egg sandwiches; Muslim meats cooked in mustard oil; Jain vegetable dishes carefully stewed without onion, garlic, or any ingredient the color of blood) shows how India prepared the world for fusion food. 

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Regular Jaffrey readers will already know some of her beloved family dishes, but she also includes a set of 32 recipes at the end of her memoir. Grandmother’s Cauliflower with Cheese is a recipe whose history is central to Climbing the Mango Trees, and it makes a natural accompaniment to Jaffrey’s recipe for My Sister Kamal’s Lamb with Cream in her Ultimate Curry Bible.

After the India of Jaffrey’s youth was partitioned in 1947, the food she loved in Delhi came to include Punjabi specialties that refugees brought with them from the northwest region of what had become Pakistan. Those signature dishes (tandoori chicken, naan bread, saag paneer) are what much of the world now identifies as “Indian food.”

Ultimately, Jaffrey’s memoir is a book of family and India, not of food and the West. Still, she is at her most evocative when she writes about the “venison kebabs laden with cardamom, tiny quails with hints of cinnamon, chickpea shoots stir-fried with green chilies and ginger, and tiny new potatoes browned with flecks of cumin and mango powder” served at the family table.

Just as she is on the screen, Jaffrey is perpetually graceful in her writing. She doesn’t claim that she speaks for all Indian cooks, nor to be an expert on their traditions. Instead, she recites the recipes that she knows by heart with joy and with love, while confessing a delightful curiosity about others. 

p(bio). Emily Stone has been a movie critic, a reproductive-health researcher, and a secondhand-book dealer. She currently lives in New York, where she reviews books for World Hum, Boldtype, and her blog, Chocolate in Context.


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