Book Review: Climbing The Mango Trees

As I mentioned long ago, Madhur Jaffrey is the reason I first tasted Indian food. I had checked her cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking out of the library, and enchanted by her descriptions of Indian food, got up the nerve to cook rogan josht. That one dish from that book started me on the road to seriously studying Indian cookery, and I owe it all to Ms. Jaffrey.

So, when I saw on Amazon that she had a memoir out, I of course had to nab myself a copy. I considered Climbing The Mango Trees a birthday gift to myself, and splurged on the fast shipping just so I could get my greedy hands on it sooner.

When it arrived, I devoured it as quickly as a new mother possibly can, which means I read it while breastfeeding Kat, while rocking her to sleep and while holding her while she slept. It took me about a day to read that way, because I kept getting interrupted by stuff like diaper changes, baby laundry and cooking dinner.

But, needless to say, I tore through it like a hot summer wind, and was sad to see it end.

How was it?

Well, it started slowly, with Jaffrey giving us a bit of a tour of northern Indian history, and placing her ancestors into that history. Luckily, I find such things fascinating, but I could see other readers going to sleep on it. Once she started talking about her own lifetime, the narrative picked up, and I was treated to Jaffrey’s own voice as she recalled incidents from her past that were of both personal and national importance.

Jaffrey’s childhood took place during very significant chunks of Indian history, and her perspective both as the child she was and the adult she is were valuable and very emotionally gripping. Of particular interest was her remembrances of Partition and the assassination of Ghandi. I found myself weeping with Jaffrey when she recounted the assassination and the resulting violence, riots and massacres. Her family, while Hindu, also had ties to the Muslim culture of northern India, and Jaffrey tells of her great sorrow during the tumult of the partition, at losing many Muslim friends and aquaintances, many of whom she never heard from or saw again.

All of the narrative is not sorrowful, of course. She does recount her food experiences, and here is where foodies will be most enthralled, because Jaffrey is endowed with a powerful taste memory, and has used this ability to recreate dishes from her childhood that might have gone lost to the world had she not written them down. The last chapter includes a number of recipes for particular dishes mentioned in the book, including many that have never been published before.

A delicious book, full of wit and wisdom, love, laughter and tears, Climbing the Mango Trees is well worth reading, especially for those who are interested not only in the food and culture of India, but also the modern history of the world’s largest democracy.

11 Comments

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  1. ACK! I totally got to meet her earlier this month! http://zephsright.livejournal.com/117171.html It was amazing and wonderful. She is the coolest ever. When I visit New York in January I am going to go to her restaurant in Manhattan. Oh and she did verify for me that when making Kela Kofta it is indeed plantains that you use and not any kind of banana, green or otherwise, so you were right about that Barbara.

    Comment by Benjamin — October 23, 2006 #

  2. Barbara -

    Thanks for the review. Never read Madhur Jaffrey! I may have to buy this one :)..

    Comment by Luv2Cook — October 24, 2006 #

  3. I read this book last week, and really enjoyed it. I was particularly enchanted by her description of sharing and swapping packed lunches with schoolmates of different religious and ethnic origins. Something about the girl with the boiled potatoes and little newspaper packet spices she would sprinkle over them that Jaffrey has never been able to recreate really made me smile.

    Comment by Danielle — October 24, 2006 #

  4. I was absent for a while but what pleasure to come back to this lovely post of yours.Thank you for sharing. I might put the book in the list of to buy. I was given one of her books by a friend last year and absolutely love the book and the way she presents food and all.

    Comment by valentina — October 24, 2006 #

  5. Thank you for sharing the recommendation of this book. I’ve just added it to my Wishlist. I’m currently about 15 books behind on my to read list, so I do HAVE to wait to purchase. I truly appreciated your recommendation of THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA…great book…and I’ve been thinking and dreaming middle eastern food since reading it.

    Comment by scotte — October 24, 2006 #

  6. Madhur Jaffrey was on Here and Now the other day. You can listen to the clip here if you missed it.

    Comment by Rebeccafrog — October 25, 2006 #

  7. The first Indian dish I ever tried was rogan josh at a small Indian resturaunt in Boston. I *loved* it and not long after I returned home (to the U.P. of Michigan where there isn’t an Indian resturaunt anywhere to be found) I quickly figured out how to put the recipe together on my own. It was yummy though not as good as the dish I had in Boston (all I had was a list of spices and a general idea of how to prepare the dish from the waitress). I’ve made it a few times since with help from an authenic recipe and I adore it. I am so glad it was my first experience with Indian food.

    Comment by Erin — October 25, 2006 #

  8. I’ve ordered this–can’t wait until it gets here. Indian food was the 1st Asian food I tried cooking myself, and Jaffrey’s book my 1st teacher.

    Comment by lucette — October 25, 2006 #

  9. Jaffrey’s World of Vegetarian Cooking is my absolute favorite cookbook these days, and I’m not even vegetarian! I’ll have to look for this one.

    Comment by Tricia — October 25, 2006 #

  10. You may want to hear this recent podcast intervierw of Madhur Jaffery http://kamlabhattshow.com/content/5009/maincontent/mp3/broadband/MadhurJaffrey_KamlaBhattShow.mp3

    Comment by Anita — October 27, 2006 #

  11. Hi,

    Totally agree with you on this. Just finished reading her bk today and loved it! A wonderful blend of history, food, culture and her own personal thots and ideas.

    Comment by Fresh Ink — November 26, 2006 #

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