You don’t often run across a memoir that includes recipes for lamb samosas, tamarind chutney and fresh lemonade Indian-style. Equally rare are cookbooks capable of transporting you back seventy years on a culinary journey that mixes social commentary with a bit of modern history. But when you’re Madhur Jaffrey, cooking maven and media personality, this is the only way to go.
Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India is a wonderfully nostalgic book that never slips into the hubris and sentimentality that characterize so many celebrity memoirs. It stops well short of her adult years and her culinary success; this is an account of family dynamics and the food that accompanied it.
“I was born in my grandparents’ sprawling house by the Yamuna River in Delhi,” she writes, introducing herself, and promptly ushers in the food: “Grandmother welcomed me into this world by writing ‘Om’, which means ‘I am’ in Sanskrit, on my tongue with a little finger dipped in honey.” Young Madhur, (a name which means ‘sweet’ but is derived from the root word madhu, Sanskrit for ‘honey’) will henceforth record her world through taste.
Food is the passport into multiple worlds: adulthood, as she graduates from the sweet tastes of babyhood to the more exciting spicy food; Old Delhi, a surviving slice of the Mughal empire where her mother’s family make their modest home, rich with the tantalizing aromas of strictly forbidden street food; and the rest of India: idlis and sambar brought to school by a Malayali friend, tandoori chicken brought to Delhi by Punjabi refugees of the Partition.
She remembers it all with astonishing clarity. There is a wealth of detail in her lucid prose as she writes of family picnics at the Qutb Minar, mountain treks in Shimla, small town life in Kanpur, her education under the purdah system in Delhi.
However, what sets her account of Delhi in the pre-Partition days apart is not the space devoted to mouth-watering descriptions of kebabs and gosht. It’s the window she allows into her world – a world in which she learns to swim by nearly drowning in the Yamuna, is taught to shoot by her hunting-mad cousins and struggles to find her identity in an India that is in the throes of transforming into an independent state.
There have been many histories of ordinary life in India’s capital before the Partition. Climbing the Mango Trees is one of the better ones and comes with the added bonus of some true blue family recipes from the Dilli of old.