cook the books club – climbing the mango trees

Our current reading selection for Cook the Books Club is Climbing the Mango Trees – A Memoir of a Childhood in India, by Madhur Jaffrey.   If you are looking for a book that provides insight into Indian food and culture with a little history lesson thrown in, then you will find it here.  If you are looking for a memoir that reads like a novel complete with plot and character development, this is not it.  
Certainly, there were moments of intrigue and whimsy. Such was the story of the Lady in White who made a frothy ambrosial drink from dried seafoam and dew.
“It was, indeed, the most ephemeral of fairy dishes, a frothy evanescence that disappeared as soon as 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 Dehli who can make this.  I am so old and it is such hard work.  What shall I tell you?”

This book is filled with cooking methods and recipes but does not go much further than that, which is fine because she does this well. I loved the descriptions of school lunches with her friends when they all unpacked their tiffin-carriers and she compared the different foods that they had brought.  Their various religions played a dominant role in those differences.

“Sudha’s food was as Jain as Abida and Zahida’s was Muslim.  It was completely vegetarian, devoid of onion and garlic, as those bulbs were thought to arouse base passions; devoid of tomatoes and beets, as their color was reminiscent of blood; and contained no real root vegetables, as pulling out roots killed the entire plant.”

I find it quite ironic that Madhur Jaffrey has made such a success out of cooking and did not learn to cook until she had left home.  Her mother taught her to cook by “air mail” when she found herself longing for the tastes of home and had no kitchen or servants to order her food from.  She had to do it herself if she wanted to eat in the manner which she was accustomed.

I tried to order some food from my “kitchen” but nobody listened so I had to do it myself.  First of all, I had to do the shopping because I couldn’t find any servant to do it for me.   As I enter the Indian grocery store, the sounds of a loud Indian voice ululating from the radio greets me, the rich, exotic aroma of Indian cooking fills the air and of course there are posters of Bollywood movie stars on the walls . It was like being transported, just for a moment, to another country.  I had been there before but this time I noted my surroundings, carefully.  As always, I walked in with a list in my hand and was immediately asked if I needed any help.  Do you think I looked out of place?  Probably.  Here comes the white girl thinking she can cook like an Indian woman.  I am sure they snickered behind their hands.  Well, I showed them as I walked out of there with my spices and my twenty pound bag of Chapati flour.  “How may Rotis do you think I will get from this bag of flour,” I jokingly asked.  “Oh, you have no idea,” she said.  She was right, I had no clue but I was ready for some serious roti making.

I gathered all the ingredients on my counter.  It made a colourful display reminiscent of a foreign marketplace so I had to take a picture.

Then I ordered some Rotis from the kitchen.  The recipe for this flat bread is pretty basic.  I used 3 cups of Chapati flour, about 1 1/4 cups of water and about 3 tablespoons olive oil.  Mix all of these ingredients together to create a dough. Knead for about seven minutes and then let the dough rest for about 2 hours.  Separate the dough into balls and roll each ball out into a fairly thin circle using more Chapati flour for dusting. 
I cooked the Rotis over medium heat on a round cast-iron pan called a tawa.  When the colour changes and bubbles appear, turn it over.  Spread butter or ghee over the cooked side.
Serve warm.
With Cucumber Raita.  Mix 1 cup of plain, thick yogurt with 1/2 cup drained, chopped cucumber, 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin and 5 tablespoons chopped cilantro.  This yogurt mixture serves to cut the heat of the spicy Indian foods and it is really quite delicious with Rotis.
The next dish that I ordered from the kitchen was this one.

Madhur Jaffrey’s Basmati rice with dill and cardamom. 

Serves 6 or more

Use a gentle folding action to stir the rice for this delicious pilaf, since it is very delicate and, as Jaffrey pithily points out, “You have paid for whole grains, not broken bits.”

The quantities are generous, but leftovers are good cold as a basis for a rice salad with chopped tomatoes and fresh coriander.

A 16floz/500ml measure of basmati rice
3 tbsp olive oil
One 3 inch/8cm cinnamon stick
5 whole cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
Half a small onion (about 2½oz/85g), sliced into fine rings
Small bunch dill, chopped
22floz/650ml chicken stock (Waitrose Cooks Ingredients stock is a good ready-made option)

Put the rice in a bowl and pour over enough water to cover. Swill the rice around with your hands, then drain through a sieve. Repeat several times, until the water is clear not cloudy.Drain, then add fresh water to cover generously and leave to soak for 30 minutes before draining again.
Pour the oil into a heavy pan, one which has a tight-fitting lid and will just fit the cooked rice. Set on a medium heat and when the oil is hot add the cinnamon stick, cardamom and bay leaves.
Stir for five seconds, then put in the onion. Cook, stirring, until the onion turns reddish brown.
Add the rice and dill. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir until the rice grains look translucent (about two minutes). Add the stock, plus about 1 tsp salt if the stock is unsalted, and bring to the boil.
Cover tightly. Reduce the heat to very low and cook for 25 minutes.
Keep covered in the pan until you are ready to eat.
Then from the kitchen, I ordered:

Madhur Jaffrey’s South indian-style stir-fried green beans
Serves 4-6
In India a kind of lentil called urad dal is used to add crunch and a nutty flavour, but peanuts also work well. Asafoetida is a resin with a pungent smell which softens on cooking to a musky scent Jaffrey describes as “truffle-like”. It’s excellent with beans and vegetables.
12oz/340g French beans cut into 1inch/2.5cm pieces
1 tbsp peanuts (not roasted)
1 tbsp olive oil
¹/3 tsp ground asafoetida
1 tsp whole mustard seeds
2 dried hot red chillies
8-10 fresh curry leaves (optional)
¼-½ tsp cayenne pepper
Half a lemon (optional)
Bring a large pan of water (about 3½ pints/2.2L) to the boil, add 1 tbsp salt and the beans. Boil hard for four minutes until the beans are cooked through.  Drain and cool under a cold tap. Meanwhile, crush the peanuts in a pestle and mortar into peppercorn-sized pieces.  Pour the oil into a frying pan or wok and set over a medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the asafoetida, mustard seeds, peanuts and whole dried chillies. As soon as the mustard seeds pop, tip in the drained beans and the curry leaves, if using.  Turn off the heat. Toss well, add the cayenne and season with salt.Heat up over a gentle heat and serve, squeezing over a little lemon juice at the last minute if you like. 
From an article published at
The dishes kept pouring from the kitchen.
Madhur Jaffrey’s Chickpeas cooked in tea – Dhabay Kay Chanay 

“Cooked in tea? You might well ask! This is the trick that all the vendors at truck stops use to give their chickpeas a traditional dark appearance. The tea –leftover tea may be used here – leaves no aftertaste. It just alters the colour of the chick peas.For speed, I have used canned chickpeas. As they are already cooked, they need just 10 minutes of gentle simmering to absorb the flavourings. I have also used canned chopped tomatoes. If you wish to substitute fresh, chop them very finely and use 1/2 cup instead of 1/4 cup.This chickpea dish may be served with store-bought pita bread, a yogurt relish, and some pickles or salad. It could also be served as a snack or as part of a more elaborate meal with meat or chicken, a green vegetable, and rice.”
Serves 4 to 5
2 cans (19 oz each) chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
¼ cup vegetable oil
generous pinch ground asafetida, optional
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 medium-small onion (6 oz), peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
¼ cup canned chopped tomatoes
2 tsp peeled, finely grated ginger
1¼ cups prepared tea (use a plain black tea; water may
be substituted)
1-2 fresh, hot green chilies, cut into very fine rounds (do
not remove seeds)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground toasted cumin seeds
1 tsp store-bought garam masala
3-4 Tbsp coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
Drain the chickpeas. Rinse them gently with fresh water. Drain again. Put the oil in a wide pan and set over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the asafetida. Let it sizzle for a second. Now put in the cumin seed sand let them sizzle for about 15 seconds. Put in the onion. Stir and fry until the onion turns quite brown
at the edges. Put in the garlic and let it turn golden, stirring as this happens. Now put in the tomatoes.
Stir and cook them until they turn dark and thick.Add the ginger and give a few good stirs. Now put
in the chickpeas and all the remaining ingredients.Bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low and simmer,
uncovered, for about 10 minutes, stirring gently now and then. Taste for balance of flavours and make
necessary adjustments.
From Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick & Easy Indian Cooking
© 2007 Chronicle Books


Madhur Jaffrey’s Salmon with mustard seed and coriander

For marinating the fish:
2lb/900g skinless salmon fillet (ideally cut from the thicker end of the fillet)
¹/3 tsp cayenne pepper
¹/3 tsp ground turmeric

For the sauce:
3 tsp whole brown mustard seeds
1½ tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp curry powder (Jaffrey uses Bolst’s hot curry powder, available from, but any curry powder will do)
½ tsp cayenne pepper
6oz/180g tomatoes, coarsely grated (messy, but possible – the skins will be left in your hand)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp whole fennel seeds
15-20 fresh curry leaves or 6 bay leaves or fresh coriander

Cut the salmon into matchbox-sized pieces.
Mix the cayenne and turmeric with ¹/3 tsp salt and rub the mixture into both sides of the fish. Put in a plastic bag or a covered dish and refrigerate for at least one, and up to six, hours.
Now make the sauce. In a clean coffee grinder or mini food processor, grind 2½ tsp of the mustard seeds. (You could also do this with a pestle and mortar and lots of elbow grease, or even use mustard powder.) Put the ground mustard in a bowl with the coriander, cumin, turmeric, curry powder, cayenne, tomatoes, ¾ tsp salt and 4floz/110ml water. Mix well.
Heat the oil in a wide, shallow pan (a deepish frying pan or sauté pan is ideal) over a medium-high heat. Add the remaining mustard seeds and as soon as they begin to pop add the fennel seeds. Stir and pour in the spice mixture and another 8floz/225ml water.
Add the curry leaves, if you have them, or bay leaves. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 10 minutes. (At this point the sauce can be cooled and refrigerated for several hours.)
To cook the fish, reheat the sauce (in the wide, shallow pan again) and lay the fish in it. It’s important the fish cooks in a single layer, so if you are doubling the quantities, use two pans.
Simmer for five minutes, then carefully turn the fish and cook for another 4-5 minutes until just about done.
Scatter with coriander (if you aren’t using curry or bay leaves) and serve with rice or naan.

From an article published at

Photo credits go to my good friend, Karen Dyck, who was happy to have her first paid photo gig.  I paid her in food.  It was a win/win, I think.