Picture this – a 70+ year old great-grandfather admonishing his 50+ year old daughter, my grandmother, to stop worrying. What was she worrying about? A 4-year old me shimmying up the Alphonso mango tree at my great-grandfather’s house in Pune! I have been fond of mangoes ever since I can remember. And it helped that my family was equally obsessed about the fruit, therefore aiding and abetting many of my endeavours.
There is no fruit that creates as much passion and debate amongst Indians as the mango. And that’s probably because there is no such thing as a mango. In India, you have to be specific and get down to a variety. In the great Indian debate on mangoes, in my opinion, the victor is the Alphonso mango or Haphoos as it is more commonly known. Apart from being mad about its taste, and I will come to that shortly, the Alphonso is grown on the West coast of India, from where I can trace my family roots. So yes, I may be biased.
The Alphonso only arrives during the peak summer in India, usually between March to May. So perhaps it is the contrast of the unbearable heat against the sheer joy provided by this variety that makes it so popular.
Mangoes spawn many rituals around buying, storing and eating. When I was a child, the Alphonso used to arrive in wooden crates at the market or better still delivered home by our fruitwallah (fruitseller). The crates would typically hold two dozen mangoes and you had to wade through a thick layer of hay to get to the first of them. The Alphonso has such a wonderful smell that it would pervade the dining room and kitchen of my grandparents’ home as the first layers of hay came out of the crate. And what a heady aroma it was! Sweet and rich and inviting, almost enticing you to come and take a bite.
And that bite…there is simply nothing that can compare to its succulent, indulgent taste. A good Alphonso mango is a medium sized, plump, firm, ochre yellow fruit that yields golden yellow flesh simply bursting with flavour. It must reach that perfect golden yellow color and fullness, so you know it’s time to cut it open. A day early and it might be a bit tart. A day late and it could become over ripe. But as a child, you are so eager to eat it that you spend most of your day pulling apart the hay and gazing lovingly at each piece. Which is why, not one mango ever goes waste.
The depth of experience that an Alphonso offers is the reason why all other varieties of mango fall far behind for me. The experience, however, doesn’t come cheap. Therefore, mock gasps of indignation from my grandmother would be common every time the fruit seller came home to deliver another crate. It never stopped her from buying them. But woe betide she ever found a rotten mango deep inside the crate.
At home, mangoes were had as dessert usually after lunch. My grandmother was in charge of cutting the fruit as it was important to cut it in a way that ensured every bit of it could be eaten. Since everyone at home enjoyed the fruit, 4 to 5 of them would get cut and served on a large steel plate which would be laid in the centre of the dining table. And then we would all dive in, grab a slice with our hands and with our teeth pull the fruit off the skin, as the juice invariably trickled down our hands. There was no shame in tugging at the skin to ensure the last bits came off till you finally tasted the bitter skin and decided to stop. The last bit of the mango left on the plate was always the big seed and usually my grandmother and mother went for that, shamelessly eating it till they reduced it literally to its hard shell.
There’s a joke that the best way to eat a mango is to sit in a bathtub, so that it doesn’t stain your clothes. But since bathtubs are an uncommon phenomenon in India, mango stains rule.
Mango season meant a slew of treats. On Sunday mornings, my sister and I would be treated to a glass of ice cold mango milk, which was diced mango and milk blended together and chilled. A special lunch would include aamras, which means the juice of a mango. The mango is squeezed into a pulp, chilled and eaten with deep fried, hot puris or puffed bread. Many Indian restaurants will advertise this dish during mango season. Some may be bold enough to offer “unlimited” aamras, but will need to brace themselves for the onslaught of aunties and uncles keen to make most of the bargain.
In Mumbai, you made evening trips to Gokul or Naturals to taste fresh mango ice cream or fresh mango with malai ice cream, which was just as good. Imagine ice cream made with only fresh cream. A dollop of that on top of an indulgent mango like Alphonso was a double treat.
Another big favourite was aambyachi barfi, an Indian sweet made with mango pulp, milk and sugar and solidified into gooey chunks sold at local sweet shops. No one made it better than Chitale Bandhu (Chitale brothers) and invariably a trip to Pune would mean a trip to their shop to buy multiple boxes for friends and family back in Mumbai.
But nothing compared to the joy of eating a freshly cut Alphonso mango. And while I was used to defending the Alphonso versus other varieties like the Totapuri, Langra or Dusseri, it greatly upset me to discover that people outside India hadn’t even heard of it, let alone tasted it. I discovered that in most of Asia, people like to debate mangoes as much as we do in India, but the debate is between the Philippine and Thai mango. That India has mangoes is unknown and usually a big surprise.
And so I survived meals in Thai restaurants with everyone fawning over mango with sticky rice. Or being in elevators in the middle of Shanghai and seeing an animated discussion between my Filipino and Thai colleagues over which country had the better mango. I tried to throw in a bit about Indian mangoes, only to be met with incredulous looks. Travel to Thailand and the Philippines and you will see shelves at airport stores laden with mango products. I even had an Australian colleague try to throw their mango into the mix. If you’ve ever seen it you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought it was a small rugby ball. It’s that huge and has the colour palette of an angry tropical bird.
Having lived with this inferiority complex, but sadly never having done anything about it, I decided I would put the Alphonso to a fair comparison versus other Asian mangoes. A trip to Mustafa in Singapore helped secure a box of Alphonso mangoes and some from Myanmar, while a trip to Cold Storage helped secure a Thai Honey Bee, a Philippine mango and the angry tropical bird also mysteriously called the R2E2 mango. I must admit at the outset that none of the pieces I managed to procure were the best representations of that variety. And so as the saying goes, amongst the blind, the one-eyed man, or mango, would ultimately be king.
On appearance, the Australian R2E2 dominated in size being double the size of the Alphonso I had managed to procure. Followed closely by the Thai mango which was slim and long. So size went to Australia.
On to colour. Both the Thai and Philippine mangoes were pale yellow in colour, somewhere between a daffodil and a slab of butter. The Australian mango couldn’t decide what colour it wanted to be. The Myanmar mango was surpringly very close to the Alphonso in size and colour, a deep golden yellow. Grudgingly, the vote on colour had to be split between Myanmar and the Alphonso.
How did they all smell? It would take an airport security dog, well actually any dog, to detect the smell of a Thai, Philippine or Australian mango. My olfactory nerves detected a faint whiff on the Myanmar mango. But bring the Alphonso into the picture and we had a clear winner.
Next step was to wash and cut the mangoes. I cut a nice slice from the side of each of them and laid them out on a large white plate. The inside flesh stayed true to the outside skin and both the Thai and Philippines mangoes had a pale yellow flesh. The R2E2 from Australia luckily was not multi-coloured but turned out to have a sunny yellow shade. Even more surprisingly, both the Myanmar and Alphonso had a deep, golden reddish-yellow color. So, again we had a tie.
And finally the most important part of the test, the taste. I went with the Philippine mango first. It had a smooth texture but was fairly tart in taste. Not the sweetness that you look forward to in a mango. The Thai mango was next. Again a smooth texture with a mild sweetness. It reminded me of another variety I have tasted in India but cannot recollect. Overall, a pleasant experience but nothing that made you jump out of your seat. The R2E2 was sweet but didn’t have much depth to its flavour. The Myanmar variety surprised me yet again with its taste, which I must admit was actually very good. A nice rich, sweet taste with far more depth than I had expected.
But at that point, without needing to taste the Alphonso, I knew that it was still the best. However good the others looked and tasted, they paled in comparison to the richness and depth of flavour offered by the Alphonso.
Not wanting to waste the slice I had cut, I picked it up and bit into it, closed my eyes and tasted my childhood all over again.