Bite it

The mango must be approached with the reverence due to a fruit with a hallowed genealogy. Eating a mango calls for rituals comparable to the savouring of fine wines at a tasting event
Ratna Raman Delhi

It is that time of the year again. The heat grows and ripens, and Delhi streets in the daytime are a metallic yellow eclipsing the balmy sunshine of the flowering laburnums. When the mercury rises over 40 degrees centigrade, Delhi's mosquitoes perish, freeing the MCD to extend its listless apathy elsewhere. Subsequently, malaria-free Dilliwallahs celebrate being alive in the summer and feast upon the succulent fruit that the hot season teases into life. There are musk melons, zardas, cantaloupes, and yellow, green and striated watermelons; but the fruit that commands unflagging anticipation is the mango. 

Newspapers announce mango festivals in watering holes ranging from the much vaunted Aman Resorts and The Manor to niche bakeries and eateries. Mangoes breathe life and meaning into the summer season. Mango ice cream and kulfi remain perennial favourites.  The avant garde are spoilt for choice with desserts such as mango soufflés, mango cheesecake, plain mango cakes, mango yoghurt, mango jellies, jujubes, sandwiches and more.  Mango jam, mango toffee, mango burfee, halwa, kheer, mangoes in cream, are regular household visitors. Srikhand, once indigenous to Maharashtra, is now plotted on the national gastronomic map. A dessert from South-East Asia, hot sticky rice cooked with ripe mangoes and coconut milk is the current flavour of the season. 

Meanwhile, one cannot overlook the tasteful triumvirate of aam papad (dehydrated, juicy slabs of mango pulp, both sweet and sour and all time favourite),  amchur (dried and powdered raw mango, staple kitchen condiment used to banish blandness forever) and chooran (made with raw mango and cumin, a delicious after-food digestive, tucked into by all age groups).

The mango exists in solid state in nature but human genius transforms it into liquid form. Aamras from Gujarat, an amazing pulped syrup when poured into little katoris works as an accompaniment to meals and also doubles up as dessert. The Bengalis excel with an incredible sweet mango chutney paired with delicate loochis that puts the puri-halwa combo at a disadvantage. They also serve a delicious thin mango rasa replete with raw mango chunks that can be guzzled in endless cupfuls, irrespective of whether food is to follow or not. 

The old stalwarts, Noga and Kissan, make squashes, crushes and jellies, while Maaza mango, with its raga 'aamsutra', plies the liquid market with Real, Parle and Slice, selling thick syrupy juices in tetrapack, plastic and glass. Utility stores bring up the rear with large plastic cans of imported mango juice. 

Nevertheless, mango milk shake, sold at fruit-juice shops dotting street corners from Shahadra to Sarojini Nagar and from Patel Nagar to Patparganj in Delhi dominates beverage bestseller charts from March to September. This blend comprising fruit of uncertain pedigree, doubtful ice, questionable flavour and colouring, lethal white sugar and fresh milk is one of the most exciting encounters one can ever have with the mango. For those who are not catholic about their intake, aam doodh can be rustled up at home with no additives and even less sugar. 

The mango is only a seasonal entrant on the cosmic stage of consumption and Indians make the most of the mango season. In north India, refreshing aam panna is made by charring (or pressure cooking) green mangoes, discarding the skin and grinding the pulp with sugar, mint and roasted cumin powder. This keeps well under refrigeration and is served diluted with water. Springfield Distilleries bottles mango liqueur and mango wine is now processed in Himachal Pradesh. 

Raw mango replaces lemon in our fabled mint and coriander chutneys in summer. North Indian households make sweet-chutneys with raw mangoes that last till the next season and evoke mango memories when eaten with paranthas. Mango pickles, mild and flavourful with anise and mustard oil and preserved in large ceramic martabans (containers) and glass jars, garnish meals and tiffin boxes in the colder season. Chutneys and pickles, commercially produced and collectively consumed, are restaurant table ware. Gujaratis make mouth-watering chunda, a sun-cooked sweet chutney made of grated raw mangoes that keeps forever, while in Maharashtra, no summer is complete without kairi dal (split pigeon-pea lentils with raw mango).

In south India, the most exciting raw mangoes are the ones eaten on the beach. Make-shift stalls selling sliced kilimooki manga on the Marina in Chennai are a must-visit for the neophyte. Raw mango is cut into long serrated strips, garnished with red chilli powder and salt, held between the thumbs and forefingers of both hands and then bitten into, while the sea and the sand and the wind play an elemental symphony. Variations of this is the manga keeral - raw mango  chopped up in suburban kitchens and garnished with asafoetida, mustard seeds, chilli and salt to complement  the now legendary thayir shaadam.  

South India is also the nodal centre for the preparation of gourmet mavadu or vadumanga (tender raw mangoes which  summer storms  shake down in large numbers). The staid residents of Thanjavur pickle vadumanga in brine. This is delicious with curd rice, but more importantly, needs to be seen as India's alternative to the green olive. In fact, food fusionistas must use vadumanga bits in every pasta and pizza recipe that calls for chopped olives. Vadumanga not only look like green olives bottled in brine, they even taste a bit like them. 

Our more adventurous Palakkad cousins dunk the vadumanga in brine that is copiously loaded with red chilli powder. This is consumed in leafy households with hot white rice and is widely enjoyed by the steel-tongued and the iron-lipped. Lesser mortals need to tone down this combine with curd.  To south India also goes the distinction of conjuring up fiery avakkai (mango pickle). Raw mangoes are also cooked into thokkus, a kind of pulpy pickle, jammish in texture, but with a palate-tingling mix of asafoetida, fenugreek, salt and chilli powder. 

The other star attractions in south India during the mango season are raw-mango rice and moerkoyambi (cooked with curd and fresh ground coconut to which ripe mangoes are added, a variation of the kadhi made  north of the Vindhyas  with curd and chick-pea flour). Both these dishes are a consummate celebration of taste, colour and texture.

Nevertheless, nothing can compete with the intense pleasure of eating the mango fruit by itself. Endorsing this, mango traders and somnambulant state governments hold mango exhibitions and shows that allow people to worship at varied mango altars. Annual mango shows are held at Dilli Haat and Pragati Maidan in Delhi and presumably in every other state in the country. Indeed, even miscellaneous institutes running 'Associations for Accountants' organise mango eating fests for their members and families. 

Mangoes come in an  array of sizes and shapes, with a colour palette that moves from pale green to speckled yellow and green, deep green, pure yellow gold, golden toffee, green and orange and orange green and crimson. The Safeda is the earliest visitor in north India and is quickly followed by the Sinduri, which of late is abundantly displayed on Delhi's street-carts. Shortly after, the real dons of the north, the Dussehri, Langra and Chausa take over. 

Gujarat has its Kesar mango and its infinite "choosney waley aam" (mango which is sucked).  Maharashtra boasts of the Alphonso, exported and canned for later use in icecreams that proudly announce their alphonso origins.  Of Tamil Nadu's several mangoes, the popular Neola has earned literary fame (in David Davidar's The House of Blue Mangoes) while the Banganapalli is a household name. The most amazing mango that the state hosts is the Padri. Mango connoisseurs lament that the genuine Padri no longer exists and spend summers tracking down the elusive flavours of their youth.

Every Indian with the exception of Jug Suraiya loves the mango. This April, Suraiya attacked the beleaguered - Bt brinjal, drew attention to its multiple names, cast aspersions on its integrity and pulverised the hapless vegetable with his wit. Having drawn blood, he waged war upon the mango in May. This round left him covered in mango yolk, whereupon he threw away his knife declaring that he was not an aam aadmi. Methinks Suraiya met his nemesis because he was largely clueless about the mango. 

The mango must be approached with the reverence due to a fruit with a hallowed genealogy.  It is celebrated in art as the stylised ambi, crafted into gold necklaces and silver anklets and embellished in pendants and earrings with stone, glass and coloured meenakari. The ambi is painted in silk, block printed on cotton and brocaded on jamawar in different parts of the country. Craftsmen from Kashmir embroider ambis in wool and silk while Kancheepuram weavers shade it in gold thread on their looms. Mango leaves adorn homes on festive occasions, and for prayers and puja, as in Bengal - the five leaves,  amer pallab, held together in one delicate branch. Poet-playwright Kalidasa ushered in both spring and desire by drawing attention to the mango tree in flower. Women are named after mangoes and having mango-cheeks is a beauty highlight. Erotic literature draws parallels between mangoes and women's breasts while the textile industry embellishes clothing with ambis

Perhaps it is now time to make connections between the Indian national flag and the fruit indigenous to the nation. White in the tricolour also represents the coconut. Green reminds us of the banana while orange recalls the rich insides of the mango. Arguably, our tricolour is a multitasking national flag that represents national identity, makes political statement and history, touches the heartstrings, pays homage to native flora, and also acknowledges our fruit orientations.  

Eating a mango calls for rituals comparable to the savouring of fine wines at a tasting event. First, one selects the fruit. Vintage mangoes, like the Padri, Dussehri, Chausa and Alphonso, have the finest flavour and taste when summer is really hot. In fact, weather and mango crop predictions go together. A good mango crop augurs a hot summer while a scant crop indicates unseasonal rains. At Kuchesar, a Neemrana resort in Uttar Pradesh, summer visitors are escorted to mango orchards, seated on charpoys and treated to mangoes cooled in buckets of water (this being mandatory to mango eating in north India). 

In south India, the finest mangoes are put away for ripening in their own casing inside rice bins or baskets lined with hay, inside cool, dark store rooms. The fruit is always stored on its side, whether in water, rice or hay, in quite the same way as bottles of wine are. Mangoes must be eaten at the correct temperature. If too warm, the flesh becomes runny and when too cold, a certain waxy texture inhibits the flavour from exploding in the mouth. 

The best way to eat a mango is with hands and mouth (never mind all those etiquette lessons for young men going West on scholarships in the 1950s that focused on eating sliced mangoes with spoons). The knife flags off the mango-eating ritual in much the same way that the corkscrew assists in prising open a bottle of wine. The knife lops off the knobbly black tip of the mango, leaving a tiny opening at the top of the fruit. Mango positioned in one hand, the pliant skin is tugged at with the front molars and stripped off in longitudinal bits. This allows for the 'nosing' of the mango's unique flavour, rather like the rolling of wine in a goblet and inhaling its bouquet. 

However, the direct contact of the palm with the sap energises the sensory perceptions of touch, taste and smell, which in turn release electrifying, synesthetic energy. Next, small nibbles release potent pulp into the mouth fulfilling a much anticipated promise. It is probably a good idea to roll up one's sleeves, or better still, wear little or no clothing while eating a whole mango. This is after all an all-body experience. It involves the arms, head and neck, the teeth engage with the mango stone and scoop out flesh which the lips and tongue quickly collect and vacuum in, while the rest of the body arches with pleasure over the mango offering.

For posterity, we could induct our children into the art of mango-eating, highlighting this as normative cultural practice. For those resistant to eating mangoes whole, the apocryphal story of Narada's visit to Kailash with a large single mango is a timely reminder. 
Narada announced that he had brought as a gift a wondrous fruit he found while traveling in India. The all knowing Maheshwara did not reach out for a knife. He offered the fruit to his sons, Kartikeya and Ganesh.  Both of them wanted to eat the fruit whole. Indulgently, Shiva declared that the one to first circle the universe would be awarded the fruit. Kartikeya took off on his peacock but one look at his mouse convinced Ganesha of the need for alternate strategy. One circumambulation around his parents after declaring that they constituted his world, won for him the fleshy fruit. On discovering this, an incensed Kartikeya left for Palani hill (Tamil Nadu) where he could consume mangoes in their entirety. He is resident there to date.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2010