If you’re a fan of Madhur Jaffrey‘s cookbooks, you’re familiar with her inimitable ability to evoke almost tangible images of good food, the people who cook it, and the places she travels in search of it.
Unlike Jaffrey’s previous works, however, Climbing The Mango Trees is not a cookbook. It’s a memoir peppered with evocative imagery, black and white photographs from the family album, and personal anecdotes that transport you to another time and place.
Always revolving around food as a central theme, this book takes you through some of the most significant times in the history of modern India. It opens in Delhi under the British Raj, where Jaffrey’s family belonged to the elite educated class. Seen through the eyes of Jaffrey as a child, and coupled with her adult insights, this period of her life comes across as idyllic, rich with friends, family (five siblings and a multitude of cousins), and good food. Her recall of sharing and exchanging packed lunches with schoolmates of different religious and ethnic origins is particularly poignant in the light of what follows: the spectre of Partition.
Jaffrey describes the turbulence of the time and her own grief at losing Muslim friends whom she never saw again. She dwells upon the way Partition impacted culinary preferences – the arrival of large numbers of Punjabi refugees from Pakistan with their tandoors, and Delhi’s ensuing infatuation with dhabas, for example.
Through her own personal experiences, Jaffrey successfully recreates for the reader a long-lost era of graciousness and largesse. She recalls meals as elaborate affairs often involving up to 40 diners, “just family”. She describes the way her Hindu family took to Muslim delicacies, remembering how they “liked the kebabs, especially the satiny, crumbling-at-the-touch, tubular seekh kebabs…” She reminisces about the joys of city picnics versus mountain picnics; visits to her maternal grandmother’s home in Old Delhi; the delights of the ‘monsoon mushroom’; and the angst of an adolescent taught to make blancmange but expected to make aloo masala during a domestic science exam.
Written in Jaffrey’s familiar, chatty style, Climbing The Mango Trees features hidden treasure at the end of the book: 32 family recipes from a time gone by.