Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Autobiography of Tastebuds

Lotusreads, an Indian now living in Canada, had highly recommended 'Climbing the Mango Trees', the autobiography by Madhur Jaffrey, covering roughly the first twenty years of her life, from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, in India.

Madhur Jaffrey is of course the well-known actress ('Shakespeare Wallah', and some Merchant Ivory films) and much loved cookery writer, who incidentally is also married to a violinist of the New York Philharmonic. Now I would have liked to hear more about this, but the book does not cover that part of her life.

Jaffrey grew up in what seems like a very privileged family, mostly in Delhi, with many servants. The family was dominated by her grandfather who organised everyone. The various wings of the family, totalling around 30 people, lived all in the same street, though in different houses, but for all main meals, ie three times a day they would troup into the grandfather's house. The family managed to escape only once from the grandfather's control, when her father got a job in Kanpur, where the family could, for the first and perhaps only time, do what they pleased, but they returned to Delhi on the outbreak of WWII. It's difficult for Western European from small families to perceive of the size of Indian families of that period, but it's graphically illustrated by scenes where in the heat of summer 20 bodies sleep on the veranda or in the garden, under individual mosquito nets. All family events, such as decamping into the cooler mountains in the summer, picnics, or festivities, require a large scale galvanising of efforts; rushing all over town to get specific ingredients for the meals, buying materials for clothes and getting the tailor to visit, and packing up almost train loads of stuff for the travels.

Jaffrey seems to have linked her childhood memories entirely to food, and the book is full of mouthwatering descriptions of this meal or that, and what they can eat in the street here and the neighbourhood over there (although her parents were extremely careful about where their children ate from and didn't really approve of street food). Those of us who read a book in terms of 'what happens next' perhaps don't do the book justice, since it can be difficult to linger over these descriptions and imagine the flavours and textures, given that they involve very complex mixtures of spices and other ingredients. In this book Jaffrey also lives through the upheavals of the partition and independence, leading to large scale population shifts - which eventually is also reflected in Indian cuisine. For example, tandoors only arrived in Delhi, according to her, when the Punjabi Indian population fled to the capital with their cooking pots and started to open restaurants. Similarly the population at her school changes, and with it the lunchboxes all the girls explore in great detail and share amongst each other.

The book is not much about about what her childhood felt like (apart from an uncle who seems to have been a bit of a difficult character, and odd moments of frustration in her teenage years); it's more about what they ate, who was there and what they did (in that order). Amazing really, that all the photos show her as a skinny kid! Special events are rarely described; it's more about what would typically happen on particular occasions - and it's a bit thin on anecdotes.

But generally, it's very interesting, giving an insight into a life that most Western Europeans are not familiar with (though is the average today's Indian familiar with it?); the food sounds impressive. And there is a bonus - Ms Jaffrey has included 32 family recipes in the book. Now where can I get those spices in Georgia??