Climbing the Mango Trees, Madhur Jaffrey's memoir, is the latest book for the online food-blogging bookclub, Cooking The Books.
I was aware of who Madhur Jaffrey was, although I don't think I have seen any of her cooking programs or her movies. I knew that she was considered very influential as one of the first people to popularise Indian cooking in the West, but I wasn't at all prepared for how gripping I found Climbing the Mango Trees.
As one of my favourite novels is Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, I found some familiar ground in Ms Jaffrey's story. But somehow the structure felt very much like recalling memories, which made the account seem much more real. The odd little insignificant details that you remember when thinking back made her memories very vivid to me.
I also found it fascinating from a historical point of view. To have heard Gandhi speak just a couple of days before his assassination is so extraordinary. And because I think of India as such an ancient culture, it's quite confronting to recognise how recently it was a British colony, and at what cost they gained independence. I hadn't realised the scale of the bloodshed at Partition.
One thing I did know is that the majority of "Indian" restaurants in Australia and the UK are run by Bangladeshis, Punjabis and Pakistanis. People who had found themselves suddenly dispossed at Partition.
It means that most of the food that I am familiar with as "Indian" has a distinctly Northern bent. The naan and tandoori-cooked foods that Ms Jaffrey found so novel with the influx of Punjabi refugees to Delhi are staples of Indian restaurants in the UK, but are just as delicious and enticing as she found them 50 years ago.
This is what inspired the dishes I cooked. I made mutton and spinach curry following Ms Jaffrey's recipe (very different from the one I usually make) which she describes as being like the curries her Muslim school friends had brought for lunch. I made her grandmother's delicious spiced cauliflower cheese. I made dhal (she says that at a pinch you can substitute Mexican black beans for the whole urad dal. It really isn't a great substitution and not one I would repeat). And I made naan.
Delicious, homely food with a history. You can't really ask more of a dinner; a fascinating story with wonderful recipes, you definitely can't ask more of a memoir.