Michele Roberts picnics with Madhur Jaffrey
What does Delhi nostalgia taste of? Mango, Marmite and masoor dhal
Madhur Jaffrey, growing up in a family with servants, did not need to cook. She learned unconsciously, storing a million flavours of spices on the tip of her tongue. Her grandmother welcomed her into the world, writing "Om" with her little finger, dipped in honey, on the baby's tongue. The baby's name, from the Sanskrit noun madhu, meant "sweet as honey". In her recently published memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees (Ebury Press, £18.99), Madhur Jaffrey speaks sweetly of how the past can be re-created through cooking.
The family, the Bahadurs, lived first in Delhi's Old City, then in a palatial house in the fast-growing New City, on the site of what had been an orchard of jujubes, mulberries, tamarinds and mangoes. The children "attacked the mangoes while they were still green and sour". The method was to wait until the grown-ups dozed off in the afternoon, then climb the mango tree en masse, each child armed with a ground mixture of salt, pepper, red chillies and roasted cumin, making for his or her chosen branch: "The older children on the higher branches peeled and sliced the mangoes with penknives and passed the slices down to the smaller fry."
Under British rule, weird foods such as Ovaltine took their place on the table. Western breakfasts involved "jams in proper cut-glass, silver-lidded jars, toast in silver toast-racks, Kraft cheese straight out of a tin" and Marmite. School lunches arrived in a four-tiered tiffin-carrier chauffeured from home. The bearer would serve the Bahadur children with koftas flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom, chapattis or rice with peas, cauliflower with potatoes, salad and fruit. Other children ate tomato-and-cheese sandwiches. One Anglo-Indian child had cornflakes, rice, masoor dhal and a sausage.
Dinners combined "English" food, such as tomato soup and oven-crisped bread, with Indian dishes: goat with cardamom, or okra with onions and wholewheat chapattis. To round off this feast: a jam tart.
The Bahadurs loved to go on picnics. They would drive to the outskirts of the city, to the garden of an ancient tomb or palace. The women of the household would get up at dawn to organise the food: potatoes in a gingery tomato sauce, pooris (small puffed breads), meatballs, pickles. The servants packed the boots of the two cars (a Dodge and a Ford) with cotton rugs, sheets, pots and pans. Fifteen people then packed themselves into the remaining space. The men and the servants sat in front. In the back, first came a layer of ladies alternated with teenagers,
with the teenagers perched on the edge of the seat. Next, on their
laps, the slim ten- to 12-year-olds. The third layer consisted of those under ten. A perfect triple-decker sandwich of nostalgia.