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Mangoes & Curry Leaves

Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent
by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent



At first glance, Mangoes & Curry Leaves is a book that causes suspicion. It’s too pretty and too perfect, with its softly burnished photographs: You might find it in a museum gift shop. And it’s definitely not something you want near hot, splattering oil. But once you become a devotee of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid—as we did when we fell in long-distance, unrequited love with them through their previous book, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet—all doubts disappear.

In the same way that its predecessor approached China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, Mangoes & Curry Leaves takes on Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Rarely does a cookbook come along that fulfills so many desires at the same time: The need for heartfelt stories that take you beneath the surface of a country. The longing to hear a nation’s individual voice. The yearning to see the way sunlight looks early in the morning as a woman walks along a rail track in southern Goa, transporting a basket of food on her head. And foremost, the desire to cook, with confidence, the authentic dishes of a foreign land.

For three decades Alford and Duguid have traveled—alone, together, with their sons—to the Asian subcontinent, tasting and learning. They value the uniqueness of the countries they visit: Pakistan, with its varied climate that inspires a diversity of regional cuisine; isolated Nepal whose cooks work so creatively with basics such as millet and lentils; the equally remote Bhutan, where meats, green root vegetables and fresh cheese often find their way into spiced stews; Bangladesh, whose food is served in courses, unlike in other parts of the subcontinent; and Sri Lanka, with its wealth of subtropical fruits and vegetables. No matter what they are sharing, from the technique for tempering flavor to the death of a mother, the authors bring their discreet, personal and always moving voices to the page.

On the practical side, they take the exotic and show how easy it can be. When we saw the straightforward recipe for a chutney from Bangladesh made with starfruit—one of our favorite ingredients—we knew that we’d use this book just as much as we’d admire it. Take Fresh Coriander-Peanut Chutney and drizzle it on grilled fish and you’ve brought the flavors of India’s Gujurat state to your house. Gather up cucumber, shallots, chile, sea salt, ground black pepper, rice vinegar and coconut milk, and you have everything you need for a Sri Lankan Village Salad. You'll even feel confident taking on Slow-Cooked Wheat Berries and Lamb with Fresh Mint. And for dessert: Sweet Yogurt Sundaes with Pistachios and Saffron.

If we have any complaint, it’s the same one we lodged against Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. This is not the kind of book you can curl up in bed with. It’s too heavy. But when we start feeling grumbly, we just think about Alford and Duguid and use them for role models. Unlike modern day travelers, impatient, eager for the day that cell phones are allowed on planes, they value the discomfort of the long flight from their home base in Toronto to the subcontinent, because it reminds them how far they are traveling and the adventure they are embarking on. Considered in this light, the weight of Mangoes & Curry Leaves serves to emphasize just how much this book contains.

Reviewed by Kim Fay

(Published: 11/30/05)
(Updated: 12/11/08 SB)

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