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Maharaja Mango: The taste of India

Cut it open and bite into the smooth, firm flesh. Inhale that delicious aroma. And know that this is the taste of India through the millennia. Vir Sanghvi tells more.

lifestyle Updated: May 09, 2011 11:51 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It is a measure of how possessive we Indians are about the mango that whenever I hear of mangoes in other countries, I feel an entirely unreasonable rage. For instance, the Thais have their own mangoes which they sell on the streets and incorporate into their salads. They are so keen on regarding the mango as their very own that Bangkok is often referred to as the Big Mango (which is also the title of a Bangkok novel by Jake Needham).

Now, I don’t mind that the Thais know how to cultivate the mango but I do resent the way in which they try to claim it for themselves. Everyone should know that the mango belongs to us and that if any city deserves to be called the Big Mango it is Mumbai.

So it is with the Egyptians. Some years ago, Hermès sent the master perfumer, Jean Claude Ellena, to Egypt to create a fragrance that captured the aromas of the Nile. Like everyone else I expected some heavy Middle-Eastern fragrance to emerge. Instead, Ellena returned with a slightly fruity fragrance which, he said, was based on the smell of the green mangoes that grew around the Nile. Mangoes and the Nile? Mangoes and Egypt? Unbelievable! It’s a perfectly good fragrance but I can’t get excited about it because I know that the only place that really smells of mangoes is India.

The sweetish marmalady flavour of murabbas made them great favourites with Raj-era Brits

So irrational is my possessiveness about the mango that even when I see the mango fruit motif in fabrics, I expect it to be regarded as an Indian pattern. It annoys me to hear it referred to as ‘paisley’ and I am incredulous when people describe it as a traditional English motif or when such dodgy Italian fashion houses as Etro try and make it their trademark. The English can create roast beef motifs for all I care and the Italians can paint pizzas on their ties. But the mango is Indian and should be acknowledged as such.

Even if my possessiveness has a slightly lunatic edge to its extremism, the reality is that the mango is not only Indian, it is as old as India itself. The virtues of the mango were noted in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in 1,000 BC (i.e. a full millennium before anyone had heard of Jesus Christ or Western civilisation itself) and some authorities will argue that the reference to Saha in the Rig Veda is a reference to the mango. These mentions in ancient literature reflect the respect Hindus have for the mango. It is a transformation of Prajapati, the creator of all creatures and its flowers symbolise the darts of Kamdev, the god of love and sex.

Even Buddhists respect the mango’s sacred origins. The Buddha would rest in a mango grove. And according to one story, the Buddha once ate a mango, planted the stone and then washed his hands over it. “A beautiful white mango tree sprang forth bearing flowers and fruit.” (The quote is from KT Achaya, who was almost as possessive about the mango as I am.)

In Gujarat it is common to make a thick pulp from the mango and to eat it with hot puris

Nobody seriously disputes that the mango is of Indian origin. Some people say that it was first cultivated in the sub-continent around 2,000 BC and then spread from our shores to the rest of Asia. Contrary to what you and I may think, the mango is not a north Indian tree. It originated in the north-east, probably around Mizoram. Despite its religious significance, it soon became the ultimate Indian fruit appealing to people of all religions. When the Mughals first came to India, they complained bitterly about the poor quality of our fruit (“What? No Samarkand melons!” etc. etc.). But they soon realised that the mango was superior to many of the fruits they were used to. Emperors took to planting orchards and in the 16th century, Akbar planted one lakh mango trees at Darbhanga in Bihar and called the orchard Lakh Bagh.

By the time the Europeans got here, the mango had already spread to the Middle East (and to Egypt, where, no doubt, it grew quietly, awaiting the arrival of Jean Claude Ellena) but was still largely unknown in the West. The Portuguese took it to Africa and then to Brazil. By the 18th century it had reached the West Indies and a few decades later, it turned up in the US. It is still cultivated in Florida and Hawaii and enjoyed by thousands of Americans who are entirely unaware of its Indian origins.

To be fair to the Europeans, they contributed to the development of the plant. It was the Portuguese who used grafting techniques to create new varieties. The most popular mango in Western India, the Aaphus, owes its name to a Portuguese grower called Nicholas Alfonso. The Indian word, Aaphus, is a corruption of Alfonso though fancy people like referring to the variety as the Alphonso, thereby misspelling poor Nicholas Alfonso’s name.

One reason why we regard the mango as so special is because it has a unique aroma and taste. But we sometimes do not give it the credit that is its due for its sheer versatility. In Gujarat, where I come from, it is common, during the mango season, to make a thick pulp from the mango (‘kairi no rus’) and to eat it with hot puris in the course of the meal. I can think of few other fruit that can be enjoyed in this manner. We also find many uses for the unripe mango. It becomes a flavouring agent in our cooking and our most distinctive pickle is made from mango. How many fruits do you know that can be used as desserts, as a pulp to be enjoyed with hot breads and as the basis for a tangy pickle?

Nor are Gujaratis alone in our love of the mango. All over south India, mangoes are used for flavour and the best Kerala curries use raw mango. This tradition dates back to ancient times: the Mahabharat describes a dish of meat cooked with mango pieces. The Gujarati mango pickle may be the best but mangoes are pickled in different ways all over India, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu. Murabbas are also ubiquitous throughout the country and their slightly sweetish marmalady flavour made them great favourites with Raj-era Brits. The mango chutneys that are still sold in Britain were a colonial variation on the traditional Indian murabba.

We regard the mango as special because it has a unique aroma and taste. But we sometimes do not give it the credit that is its due for its sheer versatility

Despite the Thais, the Americans and even the Egyptians, India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes. Though domestic demand is enormous we manage to satisfy it from our own production and even have mangoes left over for export. And yet, if you tell a Frenchman or an Englishman or even a Chinese person that there is no fruit that is the equal of the mango, they will look at you with mild curiosity and open astonishment. Check the fruit juices on sale in the West and you will find that mango juice is not among the top sellers. Go to an ice-cream parlour and check the many varieties available. The chances are that you will not find a mango ice-cream at an American parlour or an Italian gelato shop.

I can never work out why this should be so. Partly, I guess it is because the mango has an assertive flavour and cannot be mixed easily. Try making a mango cocktail and you’ll face the same problem every time: too much mango and the drink will taste of nothing else and too little mango will mean that the cocktail has no point.

So it is with ice-cream. There is only one kind of ice-cream you can make with mangoes. The flavour is so instantly recognisable that there is very little you can do with it and there is virtually no other ingredient (chocolate, raisins, nuts, etc.) that you can mix it with.

Then, there is the availability factor. In India, we are used to the idea of seasonal eating. Now that the mango season has started, nearly everyone I know is eating as many mangoes as he or she can find because we all know that the season will soon end and no mangoes will be available till the following year.

In the West, on the other hand, they are less happy to accept the rules of seasonal eating. They like fruit that are available all around the year and find it difficult to get excited about the mango, only to see it disappear from their shelves in a couple of months.

My view is that this is the West’s loss. The fewer mangoes they eat abroad, the more we can eat in India. So, go out and buy a mango. Cut it open and bite into the smooth, firm flesh. Feel that unmistakable flavour flood your tastebuds. Inhale that delicious aroma.

And know that this is the taste of India through the millennia.

- From HT Brunch, May 8

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