Madhur Jaffrey’s Climbing the Mango Trees

 

I remember the moment. The cover beckoned, winked, seduced me. I was browsing the shelves at Sunflower Books, a charming local book shop. And, full price or not, I had to have it. Unwittingly I had purchased a book by Madhur Jaffrey, the celebrated author of Indian cookbooks. Once obtained, I held it in reserve, a hoarded treasure which continued winking from the shelf. I almost enjoyed the five years of anticipating the read as much as the cozy evenings with my nose in this book. Memoir, ethnic, family, foodie—it has all best ingredients for a delightful read. 

The child of a happy marriage, she begins by explaining her name:

My father, … , firmly named me “Madhur,” which means “Sweet as Honey,” an adjective from the Sanskrit noun madhu, or “honey.” My grandfather, apparently, teased my father, saying that he should have named me “Mahbhari,” or “I am sated,” instead, as I was already the fifth child. But my father continued to procreate, and I was left with honey on my palate and in my deepest soul.

Jaffrey’s is the life of privilege with a curious blend of cultures. She describes her family as Hindu by origin but heavily veneered with Muslim culture and English education. Two motifs spiral through the book: her father’s quest for the best education for each child and her mother’s preparation of the most delicious food for every occasion. 

All of us sisters liked to read. we could be caught all over the house in the weirdest positions: legs flung over the back of a wicker chair, books on chest; lying flat on the takht (divan) on our stomachs, book on floor; head down on the desk, book an inch from eyes.

Mrs. McKelvie was my history teacher. She didn’t just teach me Indian history and British history, which were part of the set curriculum; I also learned from her that any subject could be fascinating if I delved into it deeply enough. She showed me how history, for example, could be researched from a hundred angles, some obscure and seemingly unrelated; that the study of maps and drawing of maps led to ever-greater clarity; that understanding the character of emperors and generals was sometimes as important as memorizing the dates of their battles.

During her school days (before India was divided) Madhur and her girlfriends shared their lunches: some Hindi, some Muslim, some Punjabi, one Jain.

It was not so much the ingredients—the ingredients we used at home were not all that different, though we did use less chili powder—as the hand that put these ingredients together, and the order and timing it chose to use. That hand had a different rhythm, a different energy from my mother’s, and from our own Hindi cooks from Himalayan villages. It produced a Muslim result.

Her family participated in a prayer gathering with Gandhi days before he was assassinated. Anyone interested in 20th century India would benefit from reading this book. A bonus for those interested in Indian cuisine is the fifty pages of family recipes included in the back.