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Mangoes – An Indian Love Story
The stories of our lives are entwined with this glorious, golden fruit…
It was a love affair long before one knew what love was. They were golden, dripping with a heavenly juice, fleshy and aromatic. We kids didn’t know 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 Langras, gleaming in their jewel tones – red, yellow and dark green.
Decades later, the mango still has such a magnetic hold on my generation and I wonder why that is. Is it because it is so much more than a mere fruit? After all, it represents a rite of passage, a time of giddy childhood, a time when there were endless summer days and life stretched ahead 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. You didn’t think of a future – life 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 the mango trees or aiming a slingshot at a neighbor’s tree laden with fruit; some even have battle scars to show, bruises received when tumbling down the 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 tiny 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 Indians hoard them and keep the gem-like fruits with them as long as they can. One way is pickling and 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 – be they 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.
The mango’s story is entwined with India since centuries, and it’s little surprise that it’s India’s national fruit. The Mangifora indica, from the Anacardiaceae family, is known as Aam in Hindi and its Sanskrit name is ‘amra’. It was first mentioned as ‘amra’ in the Shatapatha Brahmana, which dates back to 1000 BC. Poets and writers from Kalidasa on have been fascinated by the evocative mango.
According to Mu. Varadrajan, the 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 was the one to have 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 ‘kore’ 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, there is a giant mango tree in Chandigarh that has a girth of 10 meters and yields 17,000 kg of fruit a year. In fact there are 150-year-old trees that continue to bear fruit and which generations of grandfathers, fathers and sons may have climbed.
Kirit Desai, who worked as a research scientist at University of Pennsylvania for 25 years and is now a financial consultant in South Jersey, remembers his youthful mango-capades. Growing up in Ahmedabad, he spent all his summers in his grandfather’s mango orchards in the village of Kharoli near Valvad in Gujarat.
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 being in on the action. And the good part was that there were all varieties of mangoes all around, ready to be feasted on at any time.
The mangoes were exported to the big cities but every year large tokras containing varieties from Neelam to Kalam were also sent gratis to over hundred far-off family members. Desai recalls that as a fun task where the tokras were lined with straw and grass and jute covers were sewn on them. He had the job of writing the addresses with markers on all the tokras and then taking them by bullock cart to the railway station.
In those days there were only narrow gage trains, 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 went back to Kharoli last year: The mangoes tasted just as sweet as ever but his grandfather, who worked in the orchards right 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.
Somewhat 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, there are other delicious varieties including Kesar, Neelam, Rajapuri, Langra, 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!
THE ALPHONSO COMES TO AMERICA
Indian mangoes have traveled everywhere – from Hong Kong to Europe to the Middle East. Everywhere it seems, except the US. 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.
For decades Indian-Americans have been exiled from their favorite fruit and now some mango diplomacy has restored the fruit to us! As everyone has noted, India gets nuclear energy and America gets Alphonsos! This has been the most luscious news for NRIs everywhere – there’s a light in their eyes as they discuss this groundbreaking development at chaat parties and chat rooms.
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 1000 acres due to many reasons including hurricanes, freezes as well as imports from Mexico, South America and other countries. Indian-American mangophiles have been making do with mangoes from Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. These include Kent, Ataulfo, Keitt, Francine, Hayden and Tommy/Atkins.
Indeed, 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 has a crate of mangoes in it! No wonder aam means common and in colloquial Hindi you often say ‘aam janta’, meaning the masses.
So which Indian mangoes can we expect to see here? Believe it or not – there are 1200 varieties of Indian mangoes! It would probably take us several summers to try all the different varieties but currently we don’t know what will finally hit American shores.
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 bringing mangoes into everything from starters to entrees and desserts. Chef Allen Susser, who runs the restaurant named after him in Aventura, Florida 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.
The noted Indian-American chef Vikas Khanna has also written ‘Mango Mia!’ with Hari Nayak, a book about juxtaposing the mango into every recipe possible, 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.
So now finally our mouths and the Indian mango meet again in a sybaritic and soul-enhancing union that makes up for all the lost years, the lost time. The mango comes, 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 in amchi America!
© Lavina Melwani (This article was written in 2009)
Photos: APEDA, Vikas Khanna, Lavina Melwani