An Ode to Mangoes

When it is the month of May, it is mango season in Mumbai. And not just any ordinary mango, it’s the time for the king of mangoes – the Alphonso Mango, lovingly called Hapus in Maharashtra. The months of April to early June, just before the first rains hit the state, the aroma of these mangoes are everywhere in the city, you just can’t escape the fruit.

Scientifically known as Mangifera indica, mangoes have been grown in India for thousands of years and produces around 40% of the world’s production of the fruit. Over 1,000 varieties grow in India, each one celebrated and defended in its region, from the bright orange Kesar of Gujarat to the small green Langra of Uttar Pradesh. But the Alphonso mango is special and unlike any found in the country. The fruit is named after the Portuguese general and military expert, Afonso de Albuquerque who helped establish Portuguese colonies in India. Grating on mango trees to produce varieties like the Alphonso was also introduced by the Portuguese. The Alphonso mango is also one of the most expensive varieties of mango, and is grown mainly in western India, particulary in the Ratnagiri district of the Konkan region in Maharashtra. The fruit is highly prized for its aroma and fragrance, taste and the beautiful colour of sunset it takes on when fully ripe. It is heavily traded both domestically as well as internationally and many cartons of the fruit are packed to be sent to the Middle East, Europe, North America and South and Southeast Asia.

Of the thousands of cultivars of mango in India, there are several different varieties of Alphonso. The best and most expensive are grown on the small Natwarlal plantation in Ratnagiri, and are hand-harvested. It is this variety that’s most widely exported. The fruit was shipped to London for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 from Mumbai’s legendary Crawford Market, renowned for its Alphonso stalls in season. A few years back, the famous mangoes from the Konkan region in Maharashtra were given Geographical Indication or GI tags which means this tag specifies the geographical location, which could be a town, city, region or even a country, a product is created. This means that when you buy a mango which is GI tagged, you are sure you are buying an Alphonso mango or Hapus!

A seasonal fruit, the Alphonso mango is available from around mid-April through the end of June, though once it starts raining, the balance produce starts flooding the market and prices also drop. The fruit is best eaten when the weather is hot and dry, in the peak summer months. The Alphonso has a beautiful mango shape and each fruit a quite large, weighing between 150 to 300 grams per fruit. The skin of a fully ripe Alphonso mango turns a bright golden-yellow with a tinge of red which spreads across the top of the fruit. The flesh of the fruit is a beautiful dark saffron colour and is rich, creamy, smooth and buttery with a delicate non-fibrous and juicy pulp.

Mangoes are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals containing over 20 different vitamins and minerals. 1 serving of mango which is roughly ¾ of a cup provides you with the following amounts of your daily requirements – 50% of vitamin C, 8% vitamin A, 8% of vitamin B6, 15% of folate, 15% of copper as well as 7% of your daily fibre requirements.

Growing up, at home in Mumbai, everybody with the exception of me was a huge mango fan. While I can eat one fruit per day or so, my parents, grandparents and sister can polish off a few fruits each. I was the exception to the rule pretty much everywhere because most people I knew were mango or rather hapus aficiandos. I preferred the raw mango which is this tart and sometimes sour fruit which is so yummy with a lashing of salt and red chilli powder. During my childhood, we used to get boxes of the fruit and other than eating the fruit itself, my mother would puree the pulp and this puree would be used to flavour milkshakes and also my father and sister would dunk their chapatis and puris in this puree. So during the summer months, each night before bed, my mother would make a few glasses of mango milkshake for those who desired it (not me!).

My paternal grandparents moved to Bangalore when I was quite young and each year, we would travel to Bangalore for our summer holidays. We would mostly travel in the last few days of April or the first few days of May, depending on when my school would officially end. In my school, students had to go back to school to collect their year-end reports and so we would only travel out of Mumbai after that day, which would usually be the day after the results. A week or so before the trip, which would be by train, my mother would get in touch with her regular mango-walla to order a big box of mangoes for my grandmother who loved Hapus and could not readily find it in Bangalore those days. This is more than 30-35 years back, so the Bangalore of those days is very, very different from the Bengaluru of today. The mango-walla uncle would pack the mangoes which would be around four to five dozens in a big wooden box and layer the mangoes in beds of straw. He would have chosen unripe mangoes in varying stages of ripeness so that all 50-60 mangoes ripen at different times and we don’t have a glut of ripe mangoes to finish off at the same time. We would then take this box, along with a mango pickle made of baby unripe mangoes which was my mother’s signature pickle and which my grandfather loved along with our luggage and travel the roughly 1,150 km to Bangalore. In Bangalore, some of the Alphonso mangoes would be distributed among friends and the rest eaten as it is or made into puree, milkshakes or even used in sweets. I remember one year, my sister and I planted an Alphonso mango seed in the hope that it will become a mango tree. But we planted it too close to the boundary wall between our home and that of our neighbour and so the next year when we went looking for the tree we were sure would have come up by then, we were told they had to pluck it out and throw it. I remember both of us being so disappointed at this news.

Another memory I have about mangoes is a trip to Chennai during the summers. We were at an aunt’s house and they had a fully grown mango tree. The tree was full of unripe mangoes and the women in the house had decided they get the mangoes plucked and make mango pickle out of it. But we children plus my uncle had a different idea. One afternoon, while the women were taking a nap and we were playing board games, the uncle managed to pluck quite a few of the mangoes and after sneaking into the kitchen to get plates, a knife, some salt and red chilli powder, we had a raw mango party! Of course the expected outcome happened – all of us, including my uncle got roundly scolded for eating mangoes that was destined for a pickle, but we didn’t regret it one bit.

Mangoes are considered heaty and the rule in my house used to be a cup of milk after every mango eating session. I hate drinking milk, so sometimes, I do wonder if my indifference to mangoes was because of this rule. The next generation, aka GG & BB also love mangoes, BB more than GG I think because his go-to drink at an Indian restaurant is the Mango Lassi. So all said and done, I still love the Alphonso mango and during this season, even in Singapore, I try to purchase a carton of this precious fruit so that the children (and S and me) can take part in a ritual that goes back to my childhood.

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