If you’ve gotten to the point where you think that maybe Thoreau was right that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, here’s an antidote: Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s latest book, Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent. Alford and Duguid have possibly the fullest, most enthusiastically lived lives of any two people on the planet. For three decades, beginning in their 20s, they’ve both been traveling almost incessantly through Asia, at first individually. Along the way they met, got married, and had children (whom they simply hauled along), and for the past 11 years or so they’ve been pouring their experiences into cookbook writing, producing well-researched volumes fat with recipes, stories, and their own photographs, beginning with Flatbreads & Flavors (Morrow, 1995).
Their latest work roams the seven countries of the Indian subcontinent: Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Sprinkled among the 200-some recipes are dozens of good travelers’ tales—stories about being offered the last few mangoes from a South Indian family’s ancestral tree, shortly before it was to be cut down; about camping on a beach in Sri Lanka on the night when electricity arrived and made the drinks cold; about discovering their toddler deep-frying breads in boiling oil in a Calcutta kitchen.
It’s been said of Alford and Duguid that they are able to shed their Westernness and hunker down with the locals. That’s not exactly right. Hunker down they definitely do, but they never lose sight of the fact that they’re outsiders, and they are refreshingly humble about it. “This book is all about the food of the Great Subcontinent as seen through the eyes of two people who aren’t from the Subcontinent,” they write. “We can’t pretend to know all about this incredible food from the inside out, but we do know it intimately from the outside looking in.”
That intimate knowledge—along with the authors’ casual, unpretentious way of expressing it—suffuses the book, beginning with a swift but meaningful introduction to the many different cultures and subcultures that exist in an area less than half the size of the continental United States but with five times as many people (about 1.4 billion). Their expertise continues to be evident in the recipes Alford and Duguid have selected, mainly from homes and neighborhood restaurants, which hint at the staggering variety of food in the region. Take your pick: a lightly cooked, saladlike mallum, of finely shredded green beans, shallots, and flakes of dried tuna? An egg specialty from the Parsis of Mumbai, flavored with cashews, chiles, and golden raisins? The Pakistani dish called haleem, made with wheat berries, lamb, and mint? Or perhaps a South Indian shallot sambhar, a soupy, spicy legume dish with whole shallots simmered till tender and sweet? This is definitely a book for adventurous cooks, but it also offers dishes familiar to anyone who’s ever been to an Indian restaurant—classics like chicken curry and lamb kebabs—and many of the recipes are easy to follow.
Mangoes & Curry Leaves is a handsome tome, with glossy, beautiful photographs that mix the authors’ own location shots with studio food photos styled by someone with very good taste in rough-hewn bowls. But there’s something distant about the way it looks, which contradicts the warm engagement of its authors with their subject. A bigger problem is the grouping together of photos from completely different areas, which undermines one of the main attractions of the text—its specificity and clarity.
The only other major flaw in the book: it was written by two people but frequently in the first person singular, with no clear clue as to which of them is speaking. Occasionally a hint in a story sheds light (the narrator is wearing a sarong, so it must be Duguid; the narrator is up late chatting with a man in a bar in Sri Lanka, so it’s probably Alford), but most of the time it’s a puzzle, and it’s discombobulating not to know who’s talking.
That said, reading this book feels a lot like having dinner with the authors, just back from their most recent fabulous trip and telling you about it as they serve course after course. Then they lean in and give you great travel advice. Relax, they say. Go with the flow; be curious; try neighborhood restaurants; carry lots of small change. What they’re suggesting is that you allow yourself to find all available happiness—pretty much as they themselves have, in seemingly every corner of their lives.