DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Many of us spent this holiday week with extended family gathered around the dinner table. For Madhur Jaffrey, having dozens of relatives around the table was an everyday affair. Jaffrey grew up in a large Hindu family in colonial India. The beloved Indian cookbook writer and actress shares her family stories and flavors in a new book, "Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India."
We visited Madhur Jaffrey in her Manhattan apartment to talk about the tastes of her childhood.
I'd like to start by asking you about your name. Your name means sweet as honey?
Ms. MADHUR JAFFREY (Cookbook Writer): Madhu without the R is honey in Sanskrit. And when I was born, it was the custom in our family for the grandmother of the house to come with a little jar of honey. And this was all in the house; it wasn't in a hospital or anything like that. And they would come with a jar of honey and then my grandmother would put her little finger in the honey and write on my tongue, Ohm(ph), which means I am. And that was my first taste in life. And it was so strange that I should be named sweet as honey, after being given honey at birth.
But the priest who was making a horoscope of course wanted another name. But my father shunted him aside and said, no, this is the name for my child. And that was it.
ELLIOTT: It's almost as if he knew you were destined to...
Ms. JAFFREY: Who knew?
ELLIOTT: ...have a life of flavor.
Ms. JAFFREY: I know. How would he know? But there I was with a name associated with an ancient food.
ELLIOTT: What is your first memory of food? I'm guessing you really don't remember the honey on your tongue the day you were born.
Ms. JAFFREY: You know, I don't know. Maybe the story was told enough times that I think I remember the taste of it and the licking of it. Of course I don't. But I feel that I do. But I think the earliest taste would be what I also describe in the book, which is "Climbing the Mango Trees." And sweet things were all right for kids, but we wanted to grow up fast, as all children do. And like a girl wearing stockings for the first time, you know, you wait and wait and wait till you can wear stockings. For us, it was when can I eat hot and spicy foods?
So the mango trees had these green, sour mangos. And we would sit on the branches of the tree. We would pass them down to each other, and peel them and eat them with salt and pepper and cumin and red chili powder. All mixed up together in our palms, we'd carry it up the trees with us and dip the sliced mangos in that and eat it.
ELLIOTT: And you remember being in the tree and having that first hotness...
Ms. JAFFREY: Absolutely.
ELLIOTT: ...that's on your tongue.
Ms. JAFFREY: Hot, sour and you're grown up, you're grown up. You can eat this. You can actually - and you'd die; tears would be trickling down your eyes, but you eat it because it was a sign of being grown up. And the tastes were marvelous.
ELLIOTT: And that's the name that you've chosen for your memoir, "Climbing the Mango Tree."
Ms. JAFFREY: That's right. That's right.
ELLIOTT: You seemed very attuned to the flavors in your culture, as you were growing up as a child. Can you give us the range of the kinds of flavors that were making these impressions on you?
Ms. JAFFREY: Well, if you take all the range of American and European flavors, and let's say European and American flavors go from A to Z. Now, add 20 more on the left of A and 20 more on the right of Z, and that's what India is.
ELLIOTT: There are these lovely ephemeral foods that you mention in the book, foods that only appear during certain seasons. There's the monsoon mushrooms...
Ms. JAFFREY: Oh, yes.
ELLIOTT: ...and then the particular juicy mango.
Ms. JAFFREY: Oh, right. The mangos - now the mango is of course to Indians are the king of fruit, and we wait for them. You only get them when God's hitting the Earth with the sun in a desperate way and everything is baked and hot and you can't go out, and then the mango comes to cheer you up.
And we'd all - as kids we'd all - for the summers we'd go to the hills, to the Himalayas Mountains, and when we would go on picnics, we would take these sucking mangoes with us. And if you - always there was some kind of water where we were, very cold streams, because we're in the tallest mountains in the world - and we'd find a little place, and in the little rounded pebbles and rocks we would put the mangoes in like a little nest of eggs, and they'd be sitting there cooling while we had the rest of our meal. And all the time we'd be thinking at the end of the meal, it'll be these mangoes.
So then the meal would end, and we'd all run to the mangos, and each child would pick up a mango. And then you had to squeeze it, squeeze it all round so it would get soft. And then when it was all nicely squeezed, you would take the very top off as if opening the little faucet, as it were and then put it to your mouth and squeeze, and it would come shooting in this lovely cold mango juice.
ELLIOTT: You're making my mouth water.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ELLIOTT: What was it about these foods? Was it because they were only there for that fleeting moment that made them so good? Or was it a true taste that you just can't get anywhere else?
Ms. JAFFREY: It's both. It's definitely both. And also it is the fact that - it's how we had them. It's the association. Being with a huge family where you know everyone and you're comfortable and you're happy, you're really happy having them, so it becomes associated with a certain kind of happiness, I guess.
ELLIOTT: Now, in your own family, you were very accustomed to a wide range of influences. There was traditional Hindu cooking as well as a Muslim influence, and then the British influence.
Ms. JAFFREY: That's right. The Muslim influence was of course the strongest, because Delhi was the capital of a Muslim country, practically, even though the Muslims were in the minority, but they were ruling a majority of India since about the 13th century, till the 19th century. And my ancestors worked in the Muslim courts and they ran the Muslim courts, so they picked up the etiquette of the Muslim courts, which was wonderful, but it involved eating meat. That was very much a part of the Muslim tradition. Not that it wasn't Hindu as well, but the way we cooked it was very much in the Muslim tradition.
But then the women were very often vegetarian in my family. My grandmother was vegetarian, and they kept up the very Hindu side of the family. And then after independence, we got all the refugees from what became Pakistan, the Hindus that fled, and with them they brought what everyone associates with India, which I didn't even know about at that time, and that's tandoori cooking.
ELLIOTT: Tandoori chicken.
Ms. JAFFREY: Exactly. At the age of 13 or 14, to me it was an absolutely exotic thing. I'd never had it before, and it came with the refugees who brought their ovens, their clay ovens, with them.
ELLIOTT: Now, this happened after partition, when Pakistan and India became two countries.
Ms. JAFFREY: Yeah, after 1947. The British left India, but they left - didn't leave India whole. They left it in bits and pieces.
ELLIOTT: That must have been a hard time for your family.
Ms. JAFFREY: Oh, it was the worst time for me in my life. I don't think...
ELLIOTT: And you were a young teen at the time.
Ms. JAFFREY: I was a young teen. And even the time leading up to the partition was awful because, for example, in my class in school there were - half of it was Muslim. There were Muslim girls who came with their burkas, you know, their heads covered and their bodies covered, and they would take off all these things, because it was a girls school, and then hang them up on hooks and then be like the rest of us in class.
And once talk of partition started, the class just split into two. There were the Hindus on one side, Muslims on the other, and I was literally the only one in the middle.
ELLIOTT: And you came from this perspective because of the family that you grew up in...
Ms. JAFFREY: That's right.
ELLIOTT: ...were going to a Hindu world or to a Muslim was perfectly natural.
Ms. JAFFREY: Absolutely, it was perfectly easy and natural and normal.
ELLIOTT: What is the role of food when you think about cultural identity?
Ms. JAFFREY: I think India is rather like Italy in many ways. Nothing happens without food. All major births, deaths - nothing happens without food. Even God - when you're - before you pray you offer him a little bit of whatever you've cooked that day. So from morning till night, food is part of being in a family, food is part of your worship, food is part of everything.
ELLIOTT: Is there such a thing as taste memory?
Ms. JAFFREY: I never thought about it as a kid, obviously, and I didn't think about it as a grown-up. And it was really years and years later that I was with James Beard, and he was very sweet. He helped me start out. When nobody wanted to take Indian cooking classes, he said come teach in my house. I'll come to your class.
ELLIOTT: Now when was this?
Ms. JAFFREY: This was 1973, a long while ago. And he did a class, a wonderful class, on taste. And in that class, he asked everyone, do you think there's such a thing as taste memory? And then I began thinking about it. Of course there has to be, because I didn't know how to cook at all when I left India.
And I was in England studying drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, didn't know how to cook at all, and the food was, you know, roast beef that you could see through, cabbage that had been boiled for days, potatoes that had been boiled for days, and I would dream of Indian food, which I'd left behind.
And then I started writing letters to my mother, and she would send me these rather vague recipes - a little bit of this, a little bit of that and put it all together. But the taste must have been there in my head. This is what I think as I look back on it. So I was adding and subtracting and doing things by trial and error, but I was getting the right taste, the taste of home, which is what I wanted.
ELLIOTT: Stay with us for a taste of Madhur Jaffrey's home. After the break, she takes us into her kitchen. This is NPR News.
(Soundbite of news)
ELLIOTT: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
We're back with Indian cook Madhur Jaffrey now, squeezed into her tiny galley kitchen in New York City. She's pulling out ingredients to prepare her everyday cauliflower, a recipe from her own family table.
Now I have to tell you, I'm not a huge cauliflower fan...
Ms. JAFFREY: Ahhhh...
ELLIOTT: ...so I'm looking forward to tasting it in a way that might get me excited about it.
Ms. JAFFREY: How have you had it cooked?
ELLIOTT: You know, usually just the steamed or...
Ms. JAFFREY: Ah, ah, ah...
ELLIOTT: ...or boiled, and it has that smell and...
Ms. JAFFREY: Uh-oh.
ELLIOTT: To start, Jaffrey breaks one head of cauliflower into a pile of miniature ones, each with its own stem and flower. She whittles a hunk of ginger into fine Julienne strips and cuts thin slices from a fresh green chili. These are for later. First, it's time for the spice grinder.
Ms. JAFFREY: I find that coriander is one spice that if you leave it lying around for a while, it turns to sawdust almost.
ELLIOTT: The key to this recipe apparently is to lightly brown the cauliflower in olive oil.
Ms. JAFFREY: It's cauliflower with an attitude.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ELLIOTT: The cauliflower dances in the skillet and begins to take on a lovely, unboiled, unblanched look.
Okay, I see a little bits of brown...
Ms. JAFFREY: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: ...starting to show up on the end of the...
Ms. JAFFREY: Yeah, that's all I'm looking for, is everything should have a little bit of brown.
ELLIOTT: Madhur Jaffrey scoops out the florets and tosses them in a bowl with salt, cayenne, coriander and lemon juice, plus a brilliant yellow turmeric. Two other spices are destined for the oil from which the cauliflower emerged, including a new one for me: asafetida.
Ms. JAFFREY: It's supposed to cure even horses of indigestion. It's very powerful. But the wonderful thing about it is that when you put it in hot oil it becomes like truffles.
Ms. JAFFREY: It changes into a truffle-like aroma. Okay, so I'm putting a tiny bit of the asafetida ground, and I will put some cumin seeds into this hot oil and let them sizzle and pop.
ELLIOTT: Then the ginger shreds. The kitchen now just smells amazing.
Ms. JAFFREY: It really - it's all - it's this ginger now, the cumin being caramelized, the asafetida. And then I put the cauliflower back in.
ELLIOTT: A sprinkle of water.
Ms. JAFFREY: And then cover it and let it cook on very low heat for about a minute. It's really sort of done.
ELLIOTT: We wait just long enough for the cauliflower to steam through, then stir in fresh cilantro and the chopped green chili.
Ms. JAFFREY: And it's ready for taste. Please, come and taste.
ELLIOTT: Oh, it's lovely. Mmm. The hotness, it's so good with the cauliflower.
Ms. JAFFREY: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: It doesn't taste like cauliflower to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JAFFREY: To me it tastes like my everyday cauliflower.
ELLIOTT: Our visit with Madhur Jaffrey was produced by Kate Davidson and recorded by Josh Rogeson(ph). You can find all the ingredients for everyday cauliflower at your local supermarket with perhaps the exception of asafetida. Madhur Jaffrey says you can leave it out, but you really shouldn't.
Ms. JAFFREY: Remember, it cures horses of indigestion, so for you it'll be very good.
ELLIOTT: For the complete recipe or to read an excerpt from Madhur Jaffrey's memoir, go to our Web site, npr.org.