1970s Archive

An Indian Reminiscence

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Once settled, we were left pretty much to ourselves: The only organized activity was the picnic. For this event, preparations were begun several weeks in advance, with rickshaws or palanquins arranged for the old and the infirm, and horses for the riders. The ladies of the house, as well as numerous servants, spent many days preparing the food. Baskets of mangoes were ordered from various North Indian cities: langras from Varanasi for those who liked their mangoes tart; dussehris from Luck—now for those who liked them sweet and smooth; and chusnis, small sucking mangoes, for those who preferred not to eat the fruit but rather to suck the juice straight from the skin. Lychees, those succulent fruits with sweet white flesh, were sent from Dehra Dun. Most of the packing, including pots and pans, the kettle to make Darjeeling tea, portable charcoal stoves, charcoal, disposable earthenware cups, cotton rugs, blankets, towels, serving spoons and plates, was done the night before, and at sunrise, when the mountains were still shrouded in an icy mist, porters, rickshaws, palanquins, and horses were all assembled. First the porters were loaded with baskets of food and sent off with a party of servants. The walkers, led by my middle uncle, who had a passion for hiking, were the next lot. Third were those who rode in the rickshaws and palanquins, and the last group consisted of those on horseback.

Clad in heavy sweaters, mufflers, and shawls, our large party moved slowly, making numerous stops along the way. If we passed an orchard, a halt would be called and the farmer was asked if, for a certain sum, we might pick plums or apricots. My favorite groves were those of almond trees. I loved the green almonds, slit open and robbed of their tender white flesh.

We would generally arrive at our picnic spot around midday. If it was beside a waterfall or stream, the children were permitted to swim while lunch was unpacked. The mangoes were placed in the stream to cool, fires were lit to heat certain dishes (and also to warm the children when they emerged from the freezing water), and a large cotton rug was spread on the ground. Arrayed on the rug were meatballs stuffed with raisins and mint leaves; potatoes cooked with whole fennel and cumin and fenugreek seeds; chopped goat meat cooked with peas; chickpeas tossed with raw onions, ginger, and green chiles; green beans seasoned with cumin seed, garlic, and lemon; chicken with almonds and yogurt; cauliflower flavored with ginger and Chinese parsley; spiced pooris (puffy, deep-fried breads); sour carrot pickles; hot green mango pickles; and spiced cucumbers. The meal was eaten to the accompaniment of tales of adventure and hilarious stories about our ancestors.

After lunch, the older folk would rest, napping on the rug or leaning against rocks and gossiping, and the children would disappear in various directions, fishing, hunting wild berries, or sliding on beds of pine needles. At about four o'clock we would all reassemble for tea. Served in disposable earthenware cups, it was accompanied by mutthris (biscuits) and my grandmother's thick, sweet tomato chutney. Then the fires were put out, the rugs and utensils were packed, and the whole party would begin the long trek home.

An accomplished actress (she has studied at England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, appeared on Broadway, and been featured in such movies as Chutney Popcorn), Madhur Jaffrey is also one of the foremost interpreters of Indian cuisines for Western cooks. Her next film will be New York Spice; her next article for us will be about Pakistan.

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