Come March, and it’s still winter in most of Northern America. But in most of the subcontinent, by March the mercury would have risen to well over 30 degrees centigrade (that’s almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit, for those of us who are metric challenged), and the increasing heat would mean only one thing for most of us.
Another month of waiting, and the bazaars would be flooded by them. And there have been few other fruits that have captivated the hearts, minds, tongues and digestive tracts of a sixth of the world’s population.
Mangoes happen to be native to the subcontinent, and over the millennia have woven themselves intricately in to life and culture. The world mango itself comes from the Tamil word for the (unripe) fruit, mang kai, which the Portuguese and Spanish first started taking to Europe, and then the new world. In southern India, a string of mango-leaves are tied across doorways, as an auspicious symbol. Jewelers design intricate ornaments (earrings or necklaces) with mango designs. The mango leaf or fruit is a common design found on mangalsutras that wives wear. Wedding feasts aren’t complete without mango chutney or pickle. But all of that is irrelevant. What’s relevant though are the fruits themselves.
There must be as many types of mangoes in India as there are languages. Each region has its own unique breed of mango, and regional pride insists that their mango is better than their neighbors’ mango. The Sindhu king Porus must have beamed in joy when Alexander the Great marveled at the king’s gifts of mangoes, and called it the king of fruits. There remain only a sorry few people (from some parts of some larger cities) who haven’t managed to try to climb a mango tree to steal some fruit, or take aim with stones to knock down some mangoes from a neighbor’s tree, only to hit the neighbor’s window instead, and then make a desperate run to escape the neighbor’s wrath.
Most North Indians swear by Chausa, or langra, or the ultra-sweet dussheri, and sing high praise. My own south Indian pride bristles when my wife tells me that it doesn’t get better than a sticky, juicy dussheri on a warm summer evening.
Nah! We south Indians have our own history of mangoes. And they’re just as darn good.
There are the delightful totapuri mangoes, called kili mooku (literally meaning “parrot’s beak”), long, curved, firm and delightfully flavorful. Cut out long strips of them, sprinkle a little salt, a little red chilli powder, and enjoy a sweet-salty-hot concoction fit for the kings. Or there is the delightfully aromatic kesar, prince of the deccan, which will fill the house with a heady aroma. And then there’s delightfully inviting neelam, small and green when unripe, but a light golden yellow when ripe. Then there is that king of mangoes, the alphonso, our own aapus, that every soul in Maharashtra, Western Andhra or Northern Karnataka will swear by. Can it ever get better than the queen of mangoes herself?
There’s no need even to cut up a mango to eat it. Raspuri is so rich in sweet pulpy juice that all one needs to do is to patiently take one of these in one’s palms, and gently but systematically squeeze them. And finally, cut open a little aperture on top of the mango to relish the contents for the next half hour or so, with sticky juice, aam ras, dripping down and drying on one’s hands.
And what can one say about the beloved bainganpalli? Big, fat, orange beauties, the size of a melon, with its own distinct aroma. Come early summer (mid April) and the bazaars would be lined with cart after cart loaded with the choicest, and the evenings would see crowds of people bargaining. Sharp tongued housewives, drumming down the price to a level the hawker wouldn’t dream of selling at, or meek husbands buying mangoes on their way back from work (on the orders of their wives), acquiescing to what ever price the hawkers demand (or sometimes feebly protesting, and knocking down the price of a kilogram of mangoes by a rupee or two).
And the heady mixture of aromas that unmistakably come from one source.