It’s been a long winter and summer is finally here, though there is a lingering nip in the morning air. By contrast, summer holidays are already over in much of India and kids are returning to school. Summer holidays of course meant no homework or studies. It meant lots of comics and books to read, cricket and football in the evenings, lazy afternoons and of course, the king of fruits – the mango!
My association of mangoes with summer began with our annual trips to my grandparents’ house in Bombay during our summer holidays. The balcony of the house had been enclosed to form a room. It was a long rectangular room, with a desk, a chair and a wall mounted book case on one end, followed by a bed in the middle and another cupboard at the other end on which extra mattresses were kept folded. A clothesline ran the entire length of the room. During summer, my grandfather (ajja) would bring baskets of Ratnagiri Alphonso mangoes (aapus) and these would be stored in the balcony. The mangoes themselves were encased in hay to protect them during transport as well as to provide warmth and help in the ripening process. The fragrant aroma of mangoes filled the balcony and I loved inhaling the distinctive sweet smell as I read Tintins or one of the “Three Investigator” mysteries on hot summer afternoons. A large group of my cousins would gather at my grandparents house for the summer break and after lunch and dinner each of us would be given a washed mango as dessert. We would bite into the mango, peel the skin with our teeth and bite into the soft, succulent flesh. Rivulets of mango juice coursed down our hands. We would pretty much polish off the mango and suck the seed till all that remained was a bare seed with a few fibres sticking to it. We would then turn our attention to the peels and run them between our teeth to eat any remaining fragments of the mango flesh that would be clinging to the peel. Once those were disposed off, we would pretty much lick the juices off our hand and elbows. Gross you might say, delicious I say! In case the mango was spoilt, we would get another one. As my trip would draw to a close, I would mark my remaining days by the number of mangoes left to consume. 14 mangoes left, I would tell my grandmother when a week was left and the countdown would progress with the number of mangoes left dwindling alarmingly. I need not have worried though, as my grandfather would invariably send a couple of cases of mangoes with us back to Bangalore where they would be savored.
Then of course there were the local mangoes in Bangalore – Neelam, Raspuri, Badami, Mallika and not to forget the Malgova which in size dwarfed the aforementioned varieties. I did not really care about the variety, I just loved them all! Dessert after dinner would be the fruit of the season. During summer, my father would go over to the storeroom, bring a couple of mangoes over, wash them and then slice them such that each of us got a quarter, the flesh surrounding the seeds were the bonus! The advantage with this approach was that if the mango was sour or bland, you would end up with just a slice and not have to eat the whole mango. Depending on the season and the cost of the mangoes, we would have a couple or more at a sitting. I loved the Thotapuris or the raw poly-mangoes. These were eaten with salt and chilli powder and were eaten along with the peel. It is a common sight to see street vendors selling these mangoes either from a push cart or from a basket fixed to their bicycles. Each area of India has its distinctive varieties of mangoes. We looked forward to the Mundappa from Mangalore or the Banganapalli from my friend’s farm in Andhra Pradesh.
Mangoes also found their ways into various dishes. On the spicy and savory side were the pickles ranging from the Avakai in Andhra Pradesh to the “Aam ka achar” in Punjab. In Karnataka, it was the “Mavina Midi Uppinkayi” or “Appe midi” in Konkani. These pickles were made from a variety of pungent, sour mangoes. The mangoes are pretty small in size and used whole. Aparna loves Avakai and Appe midi pickles and we usually have a stock at home. Then there was the “ambe upkari” as in mango curry. My mother made these with a special variety of mangoes, the mangoes are peeled and cooked with jaggery and seasoned with curry leaves and red chillies. The resulting dish is sweet, sour and spicy! This is more or less a Konkani speciality and requires a special variety of mango. No reference to mangoes in Konkani cuisine can be complete without the quintessential Konkani classic – “Avnas ambe sassam” which I can only describe as a Konkani twist on the fruit salad with a dash of traditional seasonings. The dish itself comprises of chopped pineapple (avnas), chopped mango (ambo) and grapes that are mixed with a sauce made of grated coconut, jaggery, salt, roasted red chilli and mustard (sasam) and finally seasoned in hot oil with mustard seeds and curry leaves. This dish is usually made in summer (when mangoes are plentiful) and served during weddings or other festive occasions. It has to be consumed fairly quickly, since it spoils quickly in the heat.
Mangoes of course found their way into Aamras and was a favorite combination with pooris. Aamras is made with the pulp of mangoes, milk, sugar and cardamom powder. You can’t use mangoes that have a lot of fibre to make this dish. Mango lassi is probably the most popular Indian drink in restaurants here in the US, but I don’t recollect drinking it back home! What I do remember is the Amrakhand or mango flavored Shrikhand. This is a Maharashtrian dish where mango pulp is combined with hung yogurt, sugar, cardamom powder and saffron to produce a creamy, tangy, sweet and utterly delicious dessert! Summers are hot and what better way to cool down, than to end a meal with mango kulfi or mango ice cream! I also remember the “ambe saat” or mango leather, a chewy fruit roll up of sorts. I spent many happy summer afternoons reading comics with a piece of mango leather slowing melting in my mouth. The ones that I used to eat as a kid were coarse in texture and dried on straw mats. You could see the imprint of the mat on the leather. The varieties that we now get (from the New Mangalore stores in Bangalore of course) are much smoother with a finer consistency and almost translucent, the process has probably gone hi-tech now! A forgotten delicacy is the Ambe Khadi or mango burfi that my grandmother used to make. These were made with mango pulp, ghee, sugar and cardamom powder heated together much like in the process of making a halwa and then spread over an overturned plate and cut into diamonds. They just melted in my mouth! If you notice, the ingredients used in many of the dishes are the same, the method of cooking differs. Aamchur or mango powder, made by drying unripe mangoes is used as a seasoning in North Indian cooking, it imparts a sour flavor to the dish. I’ve barely scratched the surface, I’m sure there are innumerable dishes that feature mangoes.
In my mind, mangoes are inextricably linked with India. I guess the name “Mangiferra Indica” gives a clue. As a child, Bangalore was still a sleepy city and it was not uncommon to find mango trees in people’s backyards. We played hockey at “Maavinthot” which I suspect was a corruption of “Maavin thota” or mango orchard. This was a playground, ringed with mango trees. An eagle eyed maali (gardener) ensured that we did not steal the mangoes. Ugadi or the Lunar New Year, saw us hang a string of mango leaves across our door for good luck. We called it a toran. The green leaves would gradually dry out over time, but we would leave them on, you did not want to mess with luck! Later on, we started hanging torans made of plastic mango leaves and hang a couple of mango twigs from the corner for symbolism. Mango leaves are also an integral part of pujas, they are placed in the “kalash” or pitcher containing water.
I’m no student of Sanskrit poetry but was introduced to Daniel Ingall’s excellent translation of “Vidyakara’s Treasury” by my friend Navdeep who would often mention how Sanskrit poetry does great justice to Nature. I eventually picked up my own copy and here is a verse describing the advent of Spring:
As the mango puts forth shoot and leaf,
puts forth bud and flower
so in our hearts does Kama shoot
and leaf and bud and flower.
Kama, of course is Kamadeva, the Hindu God of love. I guess Kama does his job well for another verse says
The mango bud her lover sent
in envied by her friends,
and in her heart the doe-eyed damsel offers it to Love.
But now she cannot let it from her hand;
she strokes it, casts her eye upon it,
smells it, turns it, holds it to her cheek.
Mangoes show up in Akbar and Birbal stories, in the Panchatantra as well as the Jataka Tales. Jim Corbett talks of wild mango trees as he recounts his jungle adventures so does Ruskin Bond in his various tales. I’m sure mangoes hold the fancy of many an Indian poet. In Summer, Koel birds and mango trees seem to be a potent combination in Hindi songs as in “Ambua ki daali pe bole re koyalia” from Dahej (1950) or the lines “Ambua ki dali pe gaye matwvali, koyalia kali nirali” from the more familiar song “Chup Gaye Sare Nazare” (Do Raaste – 1969) or Nikhil Ghosh’s private number “Ambua Ki Dari Bole Kari Koyaliya” rendered beautifully by Asha Bhosle.
When I left India, I thought my association with mangoes was severed, so it was a pleasant surprise for Aparna and me when the house that we bought in Florida came with a mango tree which at that time was just about 6 feet tall. The sellers told us that they did not think much of the tree, they had planted it three years ago and it had not borne any fruit, though there were small fruits on the tree when we bought the house. What a tree it turned out to be! The fruits were magnificent – each weighed between 1 and 1.5 lbs, a small seed and silken smooth flesh with no fiber and absolutely delicious! We thought we should be worried about squirrels or parrots but the biggest threats were the ducks from the pond behind our house. We liked to let the fruit ripen on the tree and if a fruit did fall, as if on cue, a duck would waddle out of the pond and eat the fruit leaving just the peel and seed behind! I never did find out the variety of the mango though I suspect it was a Haden, but I did make the rounds of the local nurseries and thus came to be happily acquainted with varieties such as Zill, Kent, Keitt, Haden, Dot and Tommy Atkins. Incidentally, the old favorite Malgova from India had made its way from South India to South Florida in the late nineteenth century. It is the parent of the Haden cultivar. We get our fix of mangoes now from the local Indian stores that sell Kent and Haden. Our mango tree grew to about 20 feet, I had not trimmed it and it ultimately fell victim to hurricane Frances in 2004 when it toppled over damaging our patio. I cut the fallen tree into small logs with a heavy heart and we did not plant a tree till about 2010, but we then left South Florida soon after.
Mangoes are considered to be one of the oldest cultivated fruit, but new cultivars show up now and then as avid gardeners produce hybrids from existing cultivars. Given its association with the tropics, mangoes are considered exotic in the West. I was bemused to watch “The Mango” episode on Seinfeld – where George Constanza relies on the aphrodisiac properties of the mango for some help in the bedroom. As I end, lets jump from South Florida to the Caribbean. Many a heart must have skipped a beat along with Sean Connery’s as Ursula Andress walked out of the ocean humming “Underneath the mango tree” in the first James Bond – “Dr No”! Here is Diana Coupland’s original rendering of the song.