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By Nitish S. Rele

If it wasn’t for the persistence of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, the celebrated cookbook author and actor wouldn’t have penned her account of early days in “Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India.” Madhur Jaffrey admits showing an utter lack of interest in writing the book, which was released recently.

“My editor had been asking me to pen down my memoirs for the 10 years and I had turned down the offer,” says Jaffrey, in an exclusive interview from New York City, which is now home. “Finally, I agreed to write the book on the condition that it would be only about my childhood and not my adulthood years.”

The nearly 300-page “Climbing the Mango Trees” took Jaffrey just nine months to write. But she paints a vivid and colorful picture of the bygone days, beginning with her grandparents’ sprawling mansion by the Yamuna River in Delhi. “My grandfather had built his house in what was once a thriving orchard of jujubes, mulberries, tamarinds, and mangoes,” she remarks. “His numerous grandchildren, like hungry flocks of birds, attacked the mangoes while they were still green and sour. As grown-ups snored through the hot afternoons in rooms cooled with wetted, sweet-smelling vetiver curtains, the unsupervised children were on every branch of every mango tree, armed with a ground mixture of salt, pepper, red chilies, and roasted cumin.”

A lesson in the history of Delhi, an eight-year stay in Kanpur, summer holidays in Shimla, family picnics in the capital, the pains of partition and the aftermath, including Independence Day, are covered in detail while showing great anxiety and distress by Jaffrey. Her observations on the Punjabi refugees who settled in Delhi after the partition are a good history lesson for the youth. “When India was partitioned, fleeing Hindu refugees from the newly formed West Pakistan gathered their valuables and ran in an easterly direction,” she notes. “They carried their tandoors with them so they could cook along the way. One such family that fled all the way to Delhi had decided to open Moti Mahal and offer its plain village cooking to a city of culinary sophisticates. The rest, as they say, is history.” Indeed. Also noteworthy is Jaffrey’s mention of influence of samples of heady flavors in the lunch boxes of Muslim, Jain and Hindu Punjabi friends at Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School.

Jaffrey also offers a glimpse of her childhood by spreading 36 black-and-white photographs of her family, including her parents, uncles, aunts, sisters, grandparents and cousins, throughout the book. How did she acquire the old photographs? “I begged and borrowed from my relatives,” she reveals. “One evening, back in India, we all sat talk with the photographs and reminisced about old picnics and weddings.”

The noted cookbook author does have to make a point with the latest book. “It shows an aspect of India people may not know, a period of India as a colony and the beginning of independence, what kind of a city Delhi was at one time,” she says. “It’s all a part of my growing up.”

Where there is a Madhur Jaffrey book, there are recipes, at least 30 of them in this book of childhood memoirs. Some include shami kebabas, ground lamb samosas, ground lamb with peas, chicken curry, moong dal with greens, tamarind chutney for snack foods, and carrots with fenugreek greens. Any favorites? “I like them all,” she replies. And what about mangoes? “Oh, I love them, the Alphonsos,” she says. “Unfortunately, I don’t get good ones here in New York City. But when I visit India, which is every year, I eat plenty of them.”

As for the big screen, Jaffrey can be seen in the upcoming “Hiding Divya,” a film by Rehana Mirza and Rohi Mirza Pandya, on mental illness in the South Asian community. “It’s lightly written and will be shown at the sixth annual Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival in early November in NYC,” she says.

And Jaffrey isn’t yet done with writing cookbooks. She has started work on another and yes, she is penning down her debut novel. In the meantime, happy cooking!




I don’t have my grandmother’s exact recipe. I never asked her, being too young at the time to know better. But the recipe here is a good approximation (as Jimmy Durante, the American comedian, used to say, “Da nose knows”) and utterly delicious.

Do not use jalapeno or serrano chilies for Indian dishes. They have the wrong texture and flavor. Green bird’s-eye chilies or any long, slim, thin-skinned variety, such as cayenne, are ideal. If you can’t find them, use ½-3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper instead of ¼ teaspoon.

2 tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 ½ pounds (8 cups) medium-sized cauliflower florets, cut so each floret has a steam
1 ¾ cups grated fresh tomatoes
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated to a pulp on the finest part of a grater or Microplane
2 fresh hot green chilies, cut into slim rounds
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon ground coriander
¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons heavy cream
¼ cup coarsely grated sharp Cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Pour the oil into a large, preferably nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. When it is hot, put in the cumin seeds. Let them sizzle for 10 seconds. Add the cauliflower florets, and stir them around for 2 minutes. Add the grated tomatoes, ginger, chilies, cayenne, turmeric, ground coriander, and salt. Stir to mix. Stir and cook for 5-6 minutes, or until the tomatoes are almost absorbed and the cauliflower is almost done. Add the cilantro and mix it in.

Put the contents of the pan into an ovenproof dish about 8 inches square, add the cream, mix, and sprinkle the cheese over the top. Put in the top third of the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and developed a few light brown spots. Serve hot.

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