Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India

by Madhur Jaffrey


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The enchanting autobiography of the seven-time James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and acclaimed actress who taught America how to cook Indian food.

Whether climbing the mango trees in her grandparents' orchard in Delhi or picnicking in the Himalayan foothills on meatballs stuffed with raisins and mint, tucked into freshly baked spiced pooris, Madhur Jaffrey’s life has been marked by food, and today these childhood pleasures evoke for her the tastes and textures of growing up. Following Jaffrey from India to Britain, this memoir is both an enormously appealing account of an unusual childhood and a testament to the power of food to prompt memory, vividly bringing to life a lost time and place. Also included here are recipes for more than thirty delicious dishes from Jaffrey’s childhood.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400078202
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/09/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 227,031
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Madhur Jaffrey is the author of numerous cookbooks—seven of which have won James Beard Awards—and was named to the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America by the James Beard Foundation. She is the recipient of an honorary CBE from Queen Elizabeth II for her services to drama and promoting the appreciation of Indian food and culture. She is also an award-winning actress, having won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, with numerous major motion pictures to her credit. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Ground Lamb with Peas (Keema Matar)
Serves 4–6

I cannot imagine our picnics or train rides in India without this dish. For my grandchildren, growing up in America, it is an all-time favorite. Sometimes we eat it with pooris, the deep-fried puffed breads, as we did so often in India, and sometimes with rice. When cooking for the children, I leave out all the chilies, whether the powdered red kind or the fresh green variety. My parents did the same for us when we were growing up.

I use low-fat yogurt, but you may use whole-milk yogurt if you prefer.

1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated to a pulp
3 good-sized cloves garlic, peeled and crushed to a pulp
2 pounds ground lamb
4 tablespoons peanut or olive oil
2 sticks cinnamon, about 2 inches each in length
4 whole cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 cup puréed tomatoes (also labeled strained tomatoes or passata)
1 1/2 cups fresh (or frozen and defrosted) peas
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1–2 finely chopped fresh bird's eye or cayenne-type green chiles
1 teaspoon garam masala (see recipe below)

Put the yogurt in a bowl and whisk lightly until smooth and creamy. Add the turmeric, cayenne, cumin, coriander, salt, ginger, and garlic. Mix until well blended.

Put the lamb into a large bowl. Pour the yogurt mixture over the top and mix (I use my hands) until thoroughly blended. There should not be any pools of yogurt left.

Pour the oil into a large (preferably nonstick) sauté pan and set over medium-high heat. When it is hot, put in the cinnamon, cardamom, and bay leaves. Stir once or twice, and then add the onion. Stir and fry about 5 minutes, or until the onion pieces are reddish brown.

Add all the meat. Stir and cook, breaking up the meat until no lumps and no pinkness are left, about 5 minutes.

Add the tomato purée and stir it in. Bring to a simmer. Cover, turn the heat to medium-low, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 6–7 minutes and making sure there is enough liquid so the lamb does not stick to the bottom. Uncover. Most of the liquid should have evaporated by this time. Stir and fry the meat for the next 5 minutes, removing and discarding the cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and bay leaves. After 5 minutes, spoon out as much of the fat as you can and discard it. Now put in the peas, cilantro, green chilies (if desired), garam masala, and 6 tablespoons water. Mix, cover and cook on low heat another 6–7 minutes, or until tender.

Garam Masala

Makes about 3 tablespoons

An aromatic spice mixture made with the more expensive "warming" spices, this is generally, though not always, used towards the end of a cooking period to add a rich but still delicate whiff of elegance. It may be bought, already prepared, in spice stores, but generally has too many filler spices such as cumin and coriander and not enough of the more expensive cardamom and cinnamon. Indian grocers sell cardamom seeds already removed from their pods. Nutmegs are soft and may be broken by tapping with a hammer. Here is a family recipe.

1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole black cumin seeds
1 teaspoon whole cloves
About 2/3 of a nutmeg
One 2-inch stick of cinnnamon, broken up into small pieces

Put all the spices into the container of a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and grind as finely as possible. Store in a tightly lidded jar, away from sunlight. It will keep for several months.


The orchard site had housed our family homestead only since the early decades of the twentieth century. My family actually came from the walled city, often called Old Delhi, just to the south, built by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century. My family referred to it simply as Shahar, or the City.

There are many Delhis, as we were to study in school, all built either alongside each other or wholly or partly on top of each other, often reusing building materials knocked down in bloody efforts at domination. Our own original family home was in Chailpuri, in the narrow lanes of the Old City. It had as its carefully chosen foundation sturdy stones “borrowed” from the walls of Ferozshah Kotla, the fourteenth-century fortress and palace of a fourteenth- century emperor in a fourteenth-century Delhi.

Starting with the ancient Vedic city of Indraprastha, which flourished in the fifteenth century B.C., a succession of Delhis was built, first by generations of Hindu rajas, only to be followed in A.D. 1193 by a roll call of Muslim dynasties: Ghori, Ghaznavi, Qutubshahi, Khilji, Tughlak, Lodhi, and Moghul. They seemed to trust the dubious comfort of walled cities, and their leaders chose to name Delhi, again and again, after themselves. This ended, at least from the point of view of my childhood, with the British version, sans walls, New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built in the ruin- filled wilderness south of the Old City walls.

The Moghul capital, Shahjahanabad, or the Old City or the City, or Shahar, was where the written history of my family began. We were only blessed with our paternal side of it. My mother’s side either kept few records or humbly kept its accomplishments under wraps. This written history, bound in red, was kept in my grandfather’s home office.

When my grandfather—Babaji, as we called him—decided to move out of the City to the orchard estate, he was already a very successful barrister. His new house, the one in which I was born, was a brick- and-plaster version of a multi-roomed, grand Moghul tent with bits of British fortress and Greco-Roman classicism thrown in to hint vaguely at grandeur. The road it was built on was named after my grandfather, Raj Narain Road (with the patriotic Hindification of names that followed Independence, it is now Raj Narain Marg), and had the number 7 on its front gate. From the time I can remember, we always referred to that house as Number 7, as in “I’m going to Number 7,” or “You know that big tamarind tree in Number 7. . . .”

Not wishing to waste money, and full of the brio of someone recently “England-returned” (he had been studying law in London), he designed it all himself. As the family story goes, it was at this time that the British had decided to move their capital from Calcutta to Delhi, and Lutyens was in the process of building the new capital, to be named New Delhi. Lutyens asked my grandfather to pick any piece of land in New Delhi and build on it—Lutyens might have designed the house himself had my grandfather asked—but my grandfather dismissed the whole idea, saying, “Who wants to live in that jungle?” Properties in “that jungle” are now worth as much as those in central London and midtown Manhattan.

Years later, having proceeded beyond my three score and ten years, I was awarded an honorary CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in Washington, D.C., another city designed by Lutyens, in a house also designed by Lutyens, the British ambassador’s residence. As I stared at my reflection there in a pair of dark Lutyens mirrors, dotted with glass rosettes, I couldn’t help thinking that my life might have come full-circle. I could have been born in a Lutyens house and received a grand recognition of my life in a Lutyens house. But I was not destined for such easy symmetry, for easy anything.

Babaji’s whitewashed house consisted of a central “gallery”—a hall, really—leading to five very large rooms with fireplaces. One of these was the drawing room, and the others served as bedrooms, one to a family. Running along the front and back of the house were two long verandas lined with semi-classical, semi–Greco-Roman pillars. The back, east-facing veranda looked out on the Yamuna River, or, as we called it with great familiarity, the Jumna River. It was here that so many of us, as infants, were rubbed with oil and left to absorb the morning sun. Because the land must have sloped down to the water, this veranda was one floor up, built over a very large, partially underground, damp, always cool cellar or taikhana. My grandfather used to make wine here from grapes he imported from Afghanistan, but that must have been before I was born.

The front, west veranda faced the gardens, which had incorporated the remnants of the old orchard and now included a winding drive to the front gate. The front and back verandas ended in rooms at each corner of the house, the front ones being shaped somewhat like turrets. The functions of these corner rooms changed over the years, but one of them at the back, facing east and south, always remained my grandmother’s—and the family’s—chapel-like, Pooja ka Kamra or Prayer Room. On top of the house were two levels of flat roofs, the one in the center being higher, and both edged with a battlement-like balustrade.

But the main house was not large enough to fit the only army Babji was to see, a growing army of spirited grandchildren produced by his eight children. Some of these progeny lived at Number 7 all the time, and some came and went. Babaji firmly believed in the joint-family system, with himself presiding as the head of his brood, a system that had been followed by his father and grandfather and, indeed, by all his ancestors.

So, in addition to the main house and gardens, across two vast brick courtyards to the north and south of the main house, were two long, trainlike, one-room-wide annexes. Made of unpainted brick, they had a more casual, country feel. The one to the north started at the river end with the dining room and then went on to pantries, storage rooms, and the kitchen. Beyond it, across another bit of courtyard on the same north side, was the Boiler, industrial in size and used for making extra hot water for our winter baths, and an annex of bathrooms. The annex to the south, known simply as the Rooms (Kamras), also started at the river end. It contained my middle uncle’s bedroom and offices, then my grandfather’s offices, and then extra rooms for guests. Besides all this there was a shed for cows and horses, a servants’ annex, and two sets of large garages.

It was in my grandfather’s southern-annex office that I one day discovered, by complete chance, a book bound in red that was the family’s history. (I must have been thirteen at the time.)

There were actually two types of family history. There was the documented version that sat properly in my grandfather’s office. But there was also the undocumented version, consisting of fables, family customs, and hearsay passed along by my grandmother Bari Bauwa and the other women of the house. This version had begun seeping into us since birth, very subtly, with the honey on our tongues. And, to start with, it was the only one I knew.

Every autumn, at the religious festival of Dussehra, Bari Bauwa would demand that we bring all our writing implements to the Prayer Room. The men would be asked to bring their guns as well. She would arrange these in the altarlike temple she had set up—Parker pens, bottles of blue-black Quink, pencils, hunting rifles—all mixed in with gods, sacred threads, and marigolds. The women and children would gather inside the Prayer Room, with the men always hovering, unconvinced, by the doors. We would begin praying and sprinkling these rather ordinary implements with yellow turmeric powder, red roli powder, grains of rice, holy water, and flower petals. I thought then that all of India was doing what we were doing: asking blessings for pens and pencils and guns.

What I did not realize was that on that day most Hindus were asking God to bless the implements they worked with: farmers wanted blessings for their bulls and plows, and traders for their weights, measures, and coins.

But who were we, and why was my bottle of Quink in the Prayer Room? According to the women’s oral history—and this was never taught to us, just deduced slowly over time—we were a subcaste of Hindus known as Kayasthas: Mathur Kayasthas, to get the sub-subcaste right. Even as a child, I saw it so clearly in my imagination. . . . Roll the film: Ancient India. Day. A vast meeting of notables is being held on a mountainside to finalize the caste system. At the top of the heap, it is announced, are to be the self-satisfied priests, the Brahmins, who will be the only ones allowed the privilege of reading, writing, and making laws. There is much cheering from their quarter. Below them are to be the warriors, Kshatriyas, who will fight and rule kingdoms. This lot seems overjoyed, too. Lower on the totem pole will be the traders and farmers, Vaishyas, whose eyes glint at the thought of making money, and even further down, the menial workers or Shudras, who stand glum and silent.

The camera shifts. Next day. Night. A small hall lit with oil lamps. A smaller meeting of agitated intellectuals. They are overwrought because they are viscerally against all these categories. In any case, they do not fit neatly into any of them. Reading, writing, and making laws is what gives them the most satisfaction, but religious orthodoxy scares them, and they want none of it. They have no fear at all of ruling any part of the world, but they will not give up their precious books. They lack both the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that makes successful traders (in fact, hush, they look down on traders), and the physical strength and desperation that sustain farmers. So they vote rather boldly to form a union of their own, a separate subcaste of freethinking writer-warriors to be known as Kayasthas. The End.

That is my version of events. There is actually a real legend, if legends can be real, that goes something like this: Just after Brahma, the God of the Universe, had created the caste system with, in descending order, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, a worried Yama, God and Chief Justice of the Underworld, approached him, saying, “I need an assistant who has the ability to record the deeds of man, both good and evil, and to administer justice.” Brahma went into a trance. When he opened his eyes, he saw before him a glorious figure of a man holding a pen in one hand, an inkpot in another, and a sword tied around his waist. Brahma spoke: “Thou hast been created from my body [kaya], therefore thy progeny shall be known as Kayasthas. Thy work will be to dispense justice and punish those that violate Divine laws.” Brahma gave him the special caste of Dwij-Kshatriya, twice-born warrior.

Another such “history” lesson came directly from my grandmother. I will never forget the day.

It was one of those sunny but crisp, cold winter Sundays that Delhi loves. Winter lasted only two months a year, and our family turned quite British for this season. At least in our clothing. All the tweed coats and jackets (British fabrics, Indian tailors) and cardigans (British wool and patterns, family-women knitters) came out of mothballed trunks. They were spread out on the lawn and sunned repeatedly for days, in a desperate effort to rid them of their naphthalene odor, after which they were hung or folded up and put into cupboards. The women wore hand-knitted cardigans on top of their sarees and then bundled themselves further in Kashmiri shawls.

I was ten and looking smart as smart can be in my pale-blue herringbone-patterned woolen overcoat, made to measure at Lokenath’s in Connaught Place, New Delhi. (My two older sisters had exactly the same coats.) It was January, and so cold that we had to wear overcoats both inside and outside the house. I smelled of mothballs.

About twenty of us had barely collected in the dining-room annex for breakfast when the Lady in White arrived. Of the same age as my grandmother, she was habitually enshrouded in a long white skirt or lahanga, a white bodice, and a white covering over her head. Her skin color matched her clothing. I used to think that my mother was the whitest Indian I knew until I met the Lady in White. My mother was the color of cream. The Lady in White was the color of milk. What mattered most to us, though, was not her milky color but the milky ambrosia that she carried on her head.

Yes, balanced there, on a round brass tray, were dozens of mutkainas, terra-cotta cups, filled with daulat ki chaat, which could be translated as “a snack of wealth.” Some cynic who assumed that all wealth was ephemeral must have named it. It was, indeed, the most ephemeral of fairy dishes, a frothy evanescence that disappeared as soon it touched the tongue, a winter specialty requiring dew as an ingredient. Whenever I asked the Lady in White how it was made, she would sigh a mysterious sigh and say, “Oh, child, I am one of the few women left in the whole city of Delhi who can make this. I am so old, and it is such hard work. What shall I tell you? I only go to all this trouble because I have served your grandmother from the time she lived in the Old City. First I take rich milk and add dried seafoam to it. Then I pour the mixture into nicely washed terra-cotta cups that I get directly from the potter. I have to climb up the stairs to the roof and leave the cups in the chill night air. Now, the most important element is the dew. If there is no dew, the froth will not form. If there is too much dew, that is also bad. The dew you have to leave to the gods. In the early morning, if the froth is good, I sprinkle the cups with a little sugar, a little khurchan [milk boiled down into thin, sweet, flaky sheets], and fine shavings of pistachios. That, I suppose, is it.”

Those cups were the first things placed before us at breakfast that day. Our spoons, provided by the Lady in White, were the traditional flat pieces of bamboo. Heavenly froth, tasting a bit of the bamboo, a bit of the terra-cotta, a bit sweet and a bit nutty—surely this was the food of angels.

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Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Emidawg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A delightful memoir that will leave you drooling. The author's descriptions of food and cooking shared by friends and family in India are tantalizing and leave you wishing you were there to share. Fortunately the author includes some recipes at the end of the book so you can sample some of the cuisine mentioned.I also enjoyed learning about the culture of India. The author was born in British ruled India and saw the independence and division of her country and the turmoil that was caused when Pakistan was formed. The story of her close and extended family and what brought them to where they are today was interesting as well.The book does seem to end somewhat abruptly though, It left me wanting more. I can only hope that she is working on a continuation of her story.
FicusFan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for a RL book group. I have to say I have no idea who the writer is, and after reading the book the same is true.It was written well enough, and it flows quickly, in its chatty style. The author tells of her early life growing up in India, her family and a bit of background on the history of India, and her family. Laced throughout the story are descriptions of foods that she loved and are part of her heritage.The book is short, and the style is to jump around and tell stories of each age of the author as she moves from childhood to young adulthood. She talks about her family and their interactions. The whole book is filled with love and fond memories. She does a good job in describing her home, garden, foods and Indian culture, religion and holidays. Of course in such a short work there is not a lot of depth. One of the problems is that at the start of each chapter there are short phrases that talk about the contents of the chapter. One thread in particular is about a happy-go-lucky Uncle who is loved by all, but has a dark underside, and who ignores his own family. The phrases talk about his bad influence, but the chapters fail to point out the problem. For example the author talks about him accompanying her older sister to NYC and London, on a medical journey. There is nothing more, but somehow this is described as a bad thing. Then the author talks about his family holding her family to blame and banging away at them again and again after the uncle (their father) unexpectedly dies of a drug reaction. Yet there are no examples of this bad feeling between the two branches of the same family, or what the family with the dead father blames the family with the dead uncle for ?The other major flaw is that the book seems to just stop in the middle. The author may be about to leave for the UK to go to drama school (I think only the scholarship is mentioned, not that she is even going). She is still very young, has not developed her career, her marriage (she mentions she is married, but not how it come about) or why she in now living in the west rather than India. I still don't know who she is, and yet I have read her book. It is almost like she wrote the book but didn't want to reveal any personal information about the adult she was, and has become, and anything too controversial about her family. So she alludes to things but never gives details or skips it entirely.I am also not a fan of foreign food, so the food described and the recipes listed just filled me with horror.
myfanwy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In case you have any doubt, yes, it's that Madhur Jaffrey, the one who writes the best Indian cooking books available in English and who has been in many Bollywood films. On a whim, I picked up this memoir of her childhood.Memoirs can be terribly dull unless there's something unique or nostalgic about them. All the reviews on Amazon remarked at how much the book made those from Delhi reminisce fondly about their childhood. For me, I enjoyed the other benefit, an inside look at a world I had no prior experience with. Although it is not intended to be a historical book, Jaffrey is old enough to remember the independence of India and the resultant break with Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was fascinating to read about Delhi's diversity before the split, her choices in attending class in Hindi or Urdu, British or Indian schools. I was happy to have read Midnight's Children to give me a little historical context because it is certainly a region with which I am far from familiar.The rest of the book focuses on the daily life of her family. It is full of picnics and school and sibling rivalry just like anywhere else, but it is set in the context of a multi-generational upper-class Indian family. Jaffrey grew up amongst her 40 cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandfather, and moved back and forth from the town to the hills according to the season. Servants rush in with baskets of food, cooling drinks of spiced milk, and ripe mangoes. Every chapter is unsurprisingly filled with loving descriptions of food, from feasts to the everyday, and from simple home cooked lunches to food from the bazaar. It makes your mouth water to read it.I'm sure I would have gotten more out of the book if I were Indian and of a certain age. Nonetheless, I enjoyed immersing myself in a world so different from my own. This book hardly tells a story -- rather, it is a collection of anecdotes in exquisite detail. It would provide invaluable material for anyone writing a novel set in India during that time period. Climbing the Mango Trees certainly contains far more detail about daily life, family interactions, clothes and food than any standard novel focused on plot. This was an enjoyable summer bit of armchair traveling. Just make sure you have your pakoras and chapatis handy.
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I love the was everything is described she paints a wonderful picture of her life!
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