Once Upon A Mango
The stories of our lives are entwined with this glorious, golden fruit...
It was a love affair long before we knew what love was. They were golden, dripping with a heavenly juice, fleshy and aromatic. As kids we didn’t understand why we could gorge on them just once a year, but were happy just to be able to dig into them. The perfumed Alphonsos, the green Dasheharis, the succulent Chausas and the golden skinned Langdas, gleaming in their jewel tones – red, yellow and dark green.
Decades later, the mango still has such a magnetic hold on my generation. Is it because it is so much more than a mere fruit? It represents a rite of passage, a time of giddy childhood, of endless summer days and life stretched into infinity – an unending field of gold, an abundant orchard of luscious mangoes dangling from countless shady trees….
To bite into a mango and get that sweet, sticky juice squirting all over your chin and clothes is to drift back into blissful childhood, into days that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Life then was in the here and now, and there was great joy in being alive in the blazing sun, in close friendships, in whiling away hours doing absolutely, gloriously, nothing.
Almost every child growing up in India remembers climbing mango trees or aiming a slingshot at a neighbor’s tree laden with fruit; some even have battle scars to show, bruises received from tumbling down branches or being chased by an irate mali or gardener. The tantalizing fruit turned even ethical little goodie-two shoes – like me – into mango-thieves, furtively picking up the fallen fruit.
One of my mango memories is sitting on the banks of the Ganges River at Har ki Pauri or the Steps of God in Haridwar. After having bathed in the holy river, we would lower a handful of Alphonso mangoes tied in a muslin dupatta or scarf into the icy waters of the Ganges. Fifteen minutes later, we’d haul them up – cold and delicious, the perfect dessert.
As the temple bells clanged and scores of leaf boats laden with marigolds and flickering earthen lamps were sent down the dark river by devotees, we joined in too, saying a prayer and sending our floats dancing on the currents. Sometimes when I bite into an Alphonso, I remember that whole tableaux, and see myself on the riverbank with loved ones who are no longer here.
Indeed, any time is mango time in India. In our home in Delhi we often ate the Sindhi kokies for breakfast – unleavened bread studded with onions, tomatoes, green chillies and coriander – cooked on the griddle and eaten with fresh, cut mango on the side. Mangoes would find their way onto the lunch table, as amb-mani – mango slices eaten with a soft, malleable Sindhi roti squooshed with oil – was the perfect treat. A snack at teatime could mean fiercely sucking out the juice and flesh from a chausa (literally a sucker) mango, and dinner could find fresh cubed mangoes once again on the table, enhancing the meal. If sudden, unexpected guests showed up, you could always offer them a plate of freshly cut Alphonsos – a treat no one with an Indian heart can refuse.
Mangoes are ephemeral – here today, gone tomorrow – so many Indians hoard them and have found ways to keep the gem-like fruits with them as long as they can. Green unripe mangoes are pickled in so many different ways, to be drawn out in the cold of winter, to be relished – summer relived. Another delicious pickled treat is mango murba – mangoes marinated in a sweet sugar sauce, with garlic and black onion seeds. It’s a real comfort food when eaten with a bowl of kichdi (rice gruel) or a chappati – you can feel all’s right with the world. For a full-blooded Indian, any time is mango pickle time, and a dollop of ambh achaar enhances any meal.
Where did this wondrous fruit come from and why does it have such a hold on the Indian psyche? Desi immigrants from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh can travel half a world away and still hanker for their mango fix. Indeed, if there’s anything that can get these often-acrimonious nationalities together on the Indian sub-continent, it is surely mangoes, which are a part of their shared history and past.
According to Mu. Varadrajan, author of The History of Tamil Literature, the eye of a woman is compared to a tender mango cut in half, with the stone being the pupil of the eye. Alexander the Great was a big fan of Indian mangoes and The Mughal Emperor Babur called it “O Fairest Fruit of Hindustan.” His grandson Akbar planted 100,000 mango trees in Dharbanga. The British, too, were enamored with the mango and created special cutlery to eat it in a “civil manner.” What they didn’t know is that mangoes defy civility and there’s a full-blooded joy in grappling with its skin, flesh, juices, even the outsized core or seed, which was often the trophy which all the siblings wanted!
Naveen Patnaik, author of The Garden of Life points out that mangoes are effective against sunstroke and are used in a variety of drinks to lower body temperatures and quench thirst in the hot summer months. Rich in Vitamin C, mangoes are used throughout the year in the Indian diet, with the pickled green mangoes helping to ward off colds. Even the powdered seed is used as a cure for dysentery and the twigs of the mango tree are handy as toothbrushes.
The mango keeps giving and giving and its beautiful shape, known as the paisley, finds its way into everything from Mughal miniatures to modern day textiles to ethnic jewelry and even into literature, both ancient and modern, when describing a woman’s allure.
The virtues of the mango have been extolled for over 3000 years, says K.T. Achaya, author of Indian Food: A Historical Companion: “The Buddha is credited with having created a white mango tree which was subsequently revered, while mango blossoms are considered sacred to the moon, have a wish-fulfilling connotation and are also considered the arrows of Manmatha, the Indian Cupid.”
Today there are thousands of varieties of mangoes, but the technique of grafting was first used by the Portuguese and some of the varieties raised had names like Niculao Alfonso and Joani Parreira. Yes, we have the Portuguese to thank for our modern mangoes like the Alphonso and Pairi!
The mango tree is hardy and according to Achaya, a giant mango tree in Chandigarh has a girth of 10 meters and yields 17,000 kg of fruit a year. Many 150-year-old trees continue to bear fruit and which generations of grandfathers, fathers and sons may have climbed.
He recalls harvesting time when along with the labor force, he would run around with a Lacrosse-like stick with a net and a sharp-edged knife, adroitly clipping mangoes, several at a time, into the net, from low-lying trees. The chote malik was not allowed to climb up the tall trees like the rest of the laborers, but this was a way of getting in on the action. And the good part was that there were all varieties of mangoes to be feasted on at any time.
The mangoes were exported to the big cities, but every year large tokras or baskets containing varieties from Neelam to Kalam were also sent gratis to over hundred far-off family members. Desai recalls that the tokras were lined with straw and grass and jute covers were sewn on them. He had the fun job of scrawling the addresses with markers on all the tokras and then taking them by bullock cart to the railway station.
At the time there were only two trains serving his area – one in the morning and one in the evening, and he’d feel very important and world-wise, placing the tokras into the freight compartment, the sweet smell of mangoes pervading everything. The hundred or so relatives would receive their mango tokras across Gujarat and be just as excited, self-importantly telling envious neighbors about the arrival of the mangoes.
Desai returned to Kharoli last year. The mangoes tasted just as sweet as ever, but his grandfather, who worked in the orchards until he was 85, has passed on; the grandchildren have left for the city and his uncles, getting older, are slowly downsizing the orchards, leasing them out to contractors, But they can’t lease or subcontract Desai’s memories, which are totally his own.
Something of a self-made mango expert, Desai takes umbrage at those who think the Alphonso is the only quality mango in India: “There are more than one type of quality mangoes and they are all good in their own way. India produces almost 60 percent of the world’s mangoes so there has to be more than one good kind.”
He points out that quality mangoes are grown in many states, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Mumbai has the advantage of access of mangoes from two of best mango-growing regions of Ratnagiri and South Gujarat. Besides Alphonso, other delicious varieties including Kesar, Neelam, Rajapuri, Langda, Daseri, Lalbaug, Totapuri, Amrapali, Vanraj, Manjeera, and Kalam. The South also produces Bagenapally, the Benishaan and the Malgoba. Ask a Bengali, Maharashtrian or a Tamilian for their favorite, and you’ll get three different answers!
Indian mangoes have traveled everywhere – from Hong Kong to Europe to the Middle East. Everywhere it seems, except the United States. I remember sneaking half a dozen in from Bombay into my luggage and arriving at San Francisco airport. The dog cops smelt me out and soon the officers were asking if I had mangoes with me. I couldn’t tell a lie and the next I knew my beloved cache of perfect Alphonsos was taken away and probably destroyed. Since then I’ve always brought in home made mango pickles, the next best thing.
India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes, but surprisingly, it accounts for less than one percent of the global trade. USAID’s Partnership for Food Industry Development has been working with Michigan State University and Indian counterparts to help Indian farmers tap domestic and international markets and support food processing.
America also has to get to know the mango better. “The mango is loved worldwide, yet only about one-third of U.S. households purchase the product at all,” according to the trade publication, Produce News. The good news is that there’s already a National Mango Promotion Board in place in the US with a budget of $2.5 million, which should get Americans salivating for mangoes.
Many mangoes originate from South Florida, as part of a seedling program initiated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and headed by David Fairchild, founder of the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. The program focused on introducing particular varieties of mangos to the region, with the goal of producing mangos that can be easily exported.
According to the Mango Board, some of the most popular varieties of mangoes exported from numerous countries were derived from this program in Florida, including the Tommy Atkins, Haden, Keitt, and Kent, which are now grown all over the world. What should be of real interest to Indians is that the Haden was a seedling of the Mulgoba, a seedling brought to Florida by the USDA from India during the late 1800s.
The mango industry in Florida has dwindled to just 1,000 acres for a mix of reasons, including hurricanes, freezes as well as imports from Mexico, South America and other countries. Indian American mangophiles have been making do with Kent, Ataulfo, Keitt, Francine, Hayden and Tommy Atkins mangoes from Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America.
With the growing Indian population (as well as the Latino community) mangoes have started proliferating. You see them not only in ethnic stores, but in mainstream supermarkets. Indians are buying them by the caseload – almost every shopping cart at Indian grocers has a crate of mangoes in it. No wonder aam means common and in colloquial Hindi you often say aam janta, meaning the masses.
Mangoes are catching the fancy of gourmet magazines and culinary gurus, right from the White House kitchen to noted chefs in topnotch restaurants, who are introducing mangoes into everything from starters to entrees and desserts. Chef Allen Susser, who runs the restaurant named after him in Aventura, Fl., has written The Great Mango Book and has been nicknamed “Mango Man” as he heads the mango campaign launched by the National Mango Board. He’s been showing consumers at supermarkets how to whip up mango salsa and mango quesadillas and talking about mangoes worldwide. Who knows, Mango Man may be demonstrating recipes with Alphonsos next year.
The noted Indian American chef Vikas Khanna has also written Mango Mia! with Hari Nayak, a book about juxtaposing the mango into every possible recipe, from Thai Steak and Mango Salad to Mango Strudel with Vanilla Lime Sauce. As mangoes catch on in America, we will see it in all its different incarnations.
For those who can’t wait till next year, the good news is that Alphonso mangoes are already available at J. Olsen’s Fruit Stand in Sunnyvale, Calif., retailing for 99 cents each. On the east coast, you can drive to Toronto, Canada, on a mango-mission since Alphonsos are available in plenty there.
The rest of us have to make do with eating mangoes from Mexico and South America and canned Indian mango pulp in our mousses, kulfis and lassis, or mango ice cream.
Until next year when our mouths and the Indian mango meet again in a sybaritic and soul-enhancing union that makes up for all the lost years. This time the mango will come not as an illegal immigrant, but legally and honorably, as a prized and welcome guest. Now Indian Americans can feel truly at home – amchi aam is finally coming to amchi America!