Flavorful and sweet with a tinge of balancing acidity, mango is a versatile tropical fruit that is rich in vitamins and nutrients. Cultivated for thousands of years, mango today comes in more than 50 varieties, with varying sizes, shapes, colors, tastes and textures.
No fruit evokes as much passionate regional loyalty as the mango in its native India. Mango has been cultivated, praised and even revered in its homeland since ancient times and remains a ubiquitous image in Indian art and folklore. I grew up in Kerala, in the furthest reaches of southwestern India, where the soundtrack of summer has a deeper bass and heavier beat than the rest of the year. Temperatures hover above 90 degrees, and nightfall brings little relief except for occasional warm breezes. Thankfully, nature comes to the rescue in the form of golden yellow mangoes that hide seductively under lush, green leaves of the mango tree.
Hot and windy summers in Texas, were I live now, bring back fond childhood memories of the king of fruits — plucking raw mangoes from low branches, sitting under a tree’s shade and eating tart green-skinned mango slices with rock salt and crushed cayenne pepper wetted with a few drops of sesame oil. In India, as weeks passed, the trees would become filled with almost-ripe golden mangoes, fragrant and intensely sweet.
When the mangoes were harvested, they were placed on thick layers of rice straw for ripening. The straw bed cradled and insulated the mangoes while allowing warm air to circulate around the fruit. Fruit vendors sold a wide variety of mangoes in their various stages — from tiny, tart and green, to fully ripe and sweet. Some were ideal for pickling, while the sweeter ones were consumed as a fruit or made into preserves or juice. Mangoes were also used in cooking, pickling and preserving before the torrential rains of the monsoon season arrived.
Endless recipe variations
Fleshy green mangoes, rich in pectin and acidity, are ideal for pickling. In times past, pickling and preserving were family projects, and each household had its very own pickle and preserve recipes handed down over generations. Red chili peppers, fenugreek seeds, asafetida and mustard seeds were bought in bulk, cleaned and sun-dried. Sesame oil bought from the village oil mill always had a fragrance quite unique. Spices were hand-pounded in a stone or wooden trough with a long wooden pole with a metal bottom. Hand-pounding brought out the subtle flavors of the spices, something machine-ground spice mixtures never could. Throughout the summer, the fragrances of roasting spices and fruits cooking in ghee perfumed the village air. By the end of the season, pantry shelves were filled with huge jars of pickles and preserves.
Sweet to spicy, there is a mango recipe to please every palate. In Kerala, these include irresistible maampaza kaalan, ripe mango slices floating in a mouthwatering silky-smooth coconut sauce, colored yellow with turmeric and garnished with fresh green curry leaves. Then there is tangy and spicy mango chutney, kadumaanga, a fiery-hot and flavorful mango pickle made with tiny green mangoes before their seeds began to harden; adamaanga, a sweet and hot dried mango preserve; and maangaathera, sun-dried spiced mango pulp, very similar to fruit roll-ups, that bursts with tropical flavors of sweet mangoes, hot cayenne peppers and Indian brown sugar — the list goes on. Mango jam was made toward the end of the season when there were plenty of ripe mangoes. Slices of mangoes were cooked with Indian brown sugar and ghee for hours in large bell metal pans placed over wood-burning stoves.
Today, mango is popular around the world and featured in the cuisines of many countries. While mangoes are most often consumed ripe in the United States, many Asian countries have appetizers, salads, pickles and main courses that call for ripe or unripe mangoes. Green mango lends that perfect astringent note to mutton, fish and chicken recipes.
Mangoes go global
Mangoes are native to India, Burma and the Andaman Islands. During the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., Buddhist monks took mango on their voyages to East Asia. The Persians took mango to East Africa about the 10th century. The Portuguese, who arrived in India in the 15th century, took it to South America, the Philippines and West Africa. The Mughals, and later the Portuguese, selected, grafted and cultivated generations of mango plants.
From Brazil, mango was carried to the West Indies and the Dominican Republic; and from the Philippines and the West Indies, mango reached Mexico by the 19th century. An imported grafted variety from India was introduced into Southern California and Florida in the 1860s. Mangoes are now cultivated commercially throughout tropics and subtropical areas. Centuries of development have produced varieties of larger succulently sweet fleshy mangoes that we are familiar with today.
What better way to quench the thirst on a hot summer day than a cool glass of mango lassi, the favorite Indian smoothie. This delicious smoothie is made with a combination of mangoes and yogurt. I add a hint of cardamom, lemon juice and lime zest to liven it up. Use ripe mangoes that do not have fibers.
- Combine all ingredients except lime zest in a blender and process until frothy and ice is crushed into small pieces.
- Serve garnished with lime zest.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photo: Mango lassi. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran