Sunday, August 30, 2009
I have an addiction - a literary addiction to memoirs of writers. You recall that a couple of months ago, I read one by Haruki Murakami. I have read many others previously but my all-time favorite is John McGahern's All Will Be Well. I just finished another by Madhur Jaffrey - Climbing the mango trees; a memoir of a childhood in India - and this one is a very close runner-up to McGahern's.
Madhur Jaffrey is a popular cookbook author of Indian cuisine. What drove me to pick up her cookbooks is my abysmal failure to produce any decent Indian curry despite my best efforts. It's either the yogurt curdling in the gravy or the spices tasting bitter. But when I started trying recipes from her book, I was suddenly cooking edible curries - much to the relief of my husband. I was impressed and reserved a copy of her memoir from the local library.
It is clear that she had a privileged childhood not just by Indian standards, but by any standard. However, there is no hint of smugness or pride. She tells her stories from the perspective of the child that she was and it does not sound contrived. I was amused because I found myself internally comparing our childhoods which could not be more different. She comes from a respectable, almost aristocratic background whose family history is contained in a thick, red leather bound book entitled "Short account of the Life and Works of Rai Jeevan Lal Bahadur, Late Honorary Magistrate, Delhi, with Extracts from his Diary Relating to the Time of the Mutiny, 1857" although it included details of family history prior to that. Could it be more grand? Much of my family history is truncated partly because of the number of adoptions in the family (this was a time when there was no record for adoptions). Part of her childhood was spent in a family homestead with two annexes which housed up to nine families comfortably. Part of my childhood was in a rented L-shaped flat - it had no rooms, was much like a studio but had to fit our family of five. Her family had a garden of not only flowers but all the vegetables for their meals (potatoes, onions, carrots, okra, eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, tomatoes...). I don't think I ever saw a vegetable garden except on television, until I was an adult.
It's not that I like to compare my life to the lives of the writers, but the way she writes draws me back to a time when I was young too. I tried to recall if, as a child, I had the same perspective. I identified with her when she chatters about her days in school. It was so easy to slip into the stories that she tells. I felt like I was a child as young as she was then, and she was taking my hand and leading me through her life - pointing out, in rich details, the saris that her mother favors and the eccentricities of her uncle, and nudging me to taste the lush, spiced foods, or suck the tart juice straight from the skin of mangoes from Benares.
Above are pictures I barely managed to take of a dinner I made with a family recipe she shared - Classic Duck Curry with Coriander and Cardamom. As you can see, I deconstructed it a little bit. I fried and roasted the duck to make it crispy, and cooked the curry separately. I had some sweet potato left from a previous dinner and decided to make a mash before plating it with some sautéed spinach. I rested a crispy duck leg on the mashed potato and poured some of the curry over it. I don’t usually plate my food this way – this was totally spontaneous and we had a good laugh over it. The curry was flavorful especially since I added a little of the duck fat to it (as would be the case if the duck was cooked in it). I was surprised at how well sweet potato goes with curry.
Of course I looked-up more information on her and I like these:
A conversation between Madhur Jaffrey and Maya Angelou.
She aspired to be an actress before she started writing about food.
BBC has a series of videos of her instructive cooking - so useful for me.
I feel a little sad that I have to return the book to the library tomorrow, but I will be looking to get a copy for my own library.