One of the first indicators of spring’s emergence is a visit to your local farmers market, and being greeted with fresh, vibrant stalls overflowing with farmed and foraged spring green vegetables such as asparagus, fiddleheads, ramps and pea shoots. For me living in Vietnam or for shoppers at Asian and Latin grocers, abundant displays of green mangoes signify spring’s arrival and that summer’s heat is rapidly approaching.
Unlike the short-lived availability of delicate spring vegetables, the green mango season lasts several months — from April to September depending on where the mangoes are from. Mangoes are cultivated in tropical and subtropical locales from South Florida to Central America to South and Southeast Asia. Ripe mangoes are prized for their sweet, fragrant flesh, but the inclusion of a green mango in a recipe brings a crisp tartness to the plate.
My North American and European friends in Asia rave about the ambrosia of a perfectly ripe mango, yet too many are unfamiliar with the numerous ways a green mango can be transformed. In places such as India and the Caribbean, green mangoes are often used to prepare chutneys, spiced pickles or tart sauces. They are also add a touch of sourness to regional curry dishes.
Green mangoes commonly used in India
In India, green mangoes are boiled or roasted, and the resulting puréed pulp is sweetened and enlivened with cumin and sometimes mint to make a refreshing, cooling drink called aam panna. Indian dishes that sometimes require additional tartness benefit from a last-minute sprinkle of amchur, dried and powdered green mango.
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Southeast Asian cooks prefer to use the raw flesh in salads, often producing an addictive dish by combining a handful of sweet, sour, salty and spicy ingredients. Occasionally, a little bit of grated green mango will be added to a meat marinade because its flesh contains an enzyme that helps tenderize meat. Most recently, I have started to use it as a substitute for apples, peaches and even rhubarb in baked desserts such as crisps and pies.
Although cooks in each of these regions have found different culinary uses for green mangoes, a common sight in Latin America, India and Southeast Asia is street-food vendors selling finger-sized lengths of green mangoes tossed with a seasoning of salt, chilies, sugar and lime prepared with and adjusted to local ingredients and tastes.
Half-ripe or under-ripe mangoes are purposely found and sold in Asian or Latin grocers. However, many of the mangoes imported to the United States that are intended to be eaten ripe are in fact under-ripe upon arrival at chain grocery stores and can still be used in a recipe calling for green mangoes, such as the Vietnamese green mango salad included in this story.
When looking for green mangoes, select fruits that are hard and firm and do not give when pressed with your thumb. Green mangoes have a uniform green skin and a pale flesh that ranges from cream to pale yellow. Likewise, the level of tartness of the flesh is dependent upon the variety of the mango.
On your next trip to the grocer, consider how hard it must be for green mangoes to be regularly passed over for their sweet siblings. Purchase a few and discover just how versatile, flashy and delicious they can be.
Preparing and cutting the firm flesh for a salad can be quick and easy. A vegetable peeler is the best way to peel a green mango. Try to resist using the large holes of a cheese grater because it is preferable to have long, thin strands instead of short, stubby pieces.
Techniques for cutting the unripe mango
In addition, you can cut an unripe mango into matchstick-sized pieces in three ways. In my opinion, the easiest and quickest way is to use a Japanese mandoline, with the middle-sized exchangeable blade securely fastened.
The second method is to use a Southeast Asian handheld grater. The graters are multipurpose tools with a peeler on one end, a rippled blade on the other and a sharp medium-sized zester in the middle. They are perfect for julienning green mangoes, green papayas, carrots and other fruits and vegetables. They are sometimes sold in Asian grocers and are easily found at fresh-food markets throughout Asia, making a great culinary souvenir of your trip.
To cut a mango using one, hold the mango in your hand at a 45-degree angle and firmly pull the zester tool down along the flesh of the fruit. Continue this motion, regularly rotating the mango, until the majority of the flesh is removed from around the pit.
The final option is great if you do not have either of the tools needed for the other two methods. Traditionally in Asia this is done by holding the mango in one hand while cutting the flesh with the other. A safer way is to use a cutting board. Place the peeled green mango on a cutting board and starting from the bottom stem and ending at the top, make a cut all the way to the pit. Repeat this type of cut every ⅛ of an inch all the way around the mango. You will have to flip the mango over during the cutting. Use a vegetable peeler to slice the cut mango from top to bottom resulting in rustic julienned mango pieces.
Vietnamese Green Mango Salad
Although this recipe is a vegetarian salad, fish sauce can easily be used by omitting the rice vinegar, adding 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and reducing the water to 1 tablespoon. No matter what version you choose to make, first taste a piece of the mango. The variety of mango and time of the season will affect its sweetness, and you may need to adjust the amounts of lime, sugar and vinegar/fish sauce to balance the dressing. It is also recommended that you first make the crispy shallots before dressing and mixing the salad.
Serves 4 as a side dish
For the mango salad:
1 green mango, peeled and cut into matchsticks
½ cup jicama, cut into matchsticks
½ red pepper, seeded and julienned
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons lime juice
¼ teaspoon salt
1 or 2 Thai red bird’s-eye chilies, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cup Thai basil leaves, roughly cut or torn if the leaves are a large size
¼ cup coriander leaves
¼ cup mint, roughly cut or torn if leaves are a large size
2 tablespoons fried crispy shallots (see instructions below)
2 tablespoons peanuts, roasted
For the crispy shallots:
½ cup shallots
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the mango salad:
1. Place the green mango, jicama and red pepper in a medium-sized bowl.
2. Spoon the sugar, water, rice vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice and salt in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add and mix the chopped chilies and garlic into the dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
3. Toss the herbs into the bowl and pour the dressing over the mango mixture. Mix well.
4. Place the salad into a serving dish and garnish with the crispy shallots and peanuts.
For the crispy shallots:
The instinctive reaction to get shallots crispy is to fry them over high heat. But cooking them slowly and gradually over a medium to medium-low heat gets the best results.
1. Thinly slice the shallots across the grain to get small shallot rings. Use your fingertips to separate the rings from one another.
2. Line a plate or baking sheet with some paper towels.
3. Heat the oil in a medium-sized frying pan or wok over medium heat. Add the shallots and gently fry, stirring occasionally.
4. After about 5 minutes, some of the edges of the shallots will begin to take on some color. For the next 5 to 7 minutes, stir more regularly to move the shallots around. Once the shallots are uniformly golden brown, remove them by briefly tilting a spider or spoon against the side of the wok or pan to let any excess oil drip back into the pan. The shallots will continue to cook out of the oil, so it is best to take them out when they are a light golden brown instead of a darker color, which may make them taste bitter.
5. Place the fried shallots on the paper towels and spread them out. Over the next 5 to 10 minutes they will cool, crisp up and be ready to use.
Main photo: Vietnamese Green Mango Salad. Credit: Cameron Stauch