In praise of Indian mangoes

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ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, December 2011

Movie poster at Jubilee Hills Check Post, Hyderabad
Movie poster at Jubilee Hills Check Post, Hyderabad

They gave me a mango at breakfast in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, in the boutique hotel where I was staying. The mango was beautifully presented in Thai style: two halves on the plate with the seed removed. The halves were cut into even bite-sized slices. The mango was not too ripe but full of flavour. Each firm portion tasted identical to the last one, and I had to restrain myself from eating too quickly. The mango was mouth-wateringly delicious.

Mango stand near Masab Tank, Hyderabad
Mango stand near Masab Tank, Hyderabad

I would not have thought about it further, except that I had been in India the week before, attending wedding festivities. The contrast between mangoes in India and those in Thailand provided food for thought. You could say I had an epiphany. The Thai mango was much the same as I could have had in northern Australia, Mexico or the USA. It was better than I could get at home in Canberra in summer – a transport issue – but not excessively so.

In India, however, the mango was something else entirely. I had been in Hyderabad, in Andhra Pradesh – sedentary, pampered, at the height of the mango season. When the monsoon comes the mangoes get brown spots, ruining the flavour and abruptly ending the season. I have been coming to India since 1981, and since 2004 I have done volunteer work in Hyderabad for a couple of months each year. I normally come in winter, in custard-apple season.

Before I talk further about mangoes, I need to reveal some prejudices to explain why I am excited. Mangoes give me a glimmer of understanding of the enigma that is India – an understanding its food in general has not quite given me. Over the years, I have begun to grasp the incredible variety of food in India: the spices; the fruits and the vegetables that are available; the incredible numbers of trees and plants used in traditional Indian villages; and the genetic types still available that are beyond the ken of scientific agriculture.

I understand this, but I do not actually like Indian food. I find the chilli too strong, the spices too overpowering and numerous, and the food, especially the vegetables, overcooked for my Western palate. Hyderabad is a gourmet city proud of its food history. I eat home-cooked food most of the time these days while in India, and my primary host is an excellent cook. Yet every time I fly into Bangkok after a stint in India – the smell of fish sauce wafting across the city, the taste of fresh herbs and al dente vegetables – I heave a sigh of relief. My lower alimentary tract settles down slowly and I return to ‘normal’ life.

In India, I silently bemoan that the wonderful vegetables I see in marvellous profusion and variety – these regionally grown vegetables that come fresh into the city almost every day, because there is still hardly any refrigerated transport – are turned into mush in traditional ways of cooking. I sympathise deeply with the pseudonymous Aarti, whose story I once read on the Internet:

I grew up in a traditional Indian household. My mother was praised as a good cook. But as a child I couldn’t tolerate the adult spices; I threw up frequently. The doctor recommended a bland diet, but my mother wouldn’t comply. In response, I hid food and only pretended to eat. I could make a bowl of pasta in no time by the fifth grade. As an adult I am an Italian at heart, but I also like Caribbean chicken or salsa.

I am not a complete Philistine. I recognise the incredible variety of Indian regional cuisine. I am an admirer of the cook Madhur Jaffrey and her single-minded (and extremely successful) campaign to bring the best of Indian regional cuisine to the West. I have in my time even enjoyed Indian gourmet restaurants overseas. Although I recognise the wondrous ingredients of Indian cuisine, I do not tolerate the food – and cannot grasp fully why, in some lists of the world’s best cuisines, India comes in at number four or five.

Nonetheless, I am excited by Indian mangoes. They offer me an opportunity to expiate my sins and perhaps approach the heart of all things positive in the complexity of Indian culture.

Varieties of this land

Recently, we arrived in Hyderabad on a Saturday night, separately but part of a large contingent of NRI (non-resident Indians) relations and foreigners mostly from the USA, a few from Europe and my partner and I from Australia. We were on the groom’s side. The groom is the only child of my activist friend Rukmini’s younger brother and sister-in-law (the excellent cook mentioned earlier). The four share an apartment and I stay with them whenever I am in Hyderabad. I have known the groom for much of his life.

Sundari mangoes on sale
Sundari mangoes on sale

The apartment opposite is owned by an uncle and was fortuitously vacant, so it was used as a general gathering and eating area. A small army of ‘aunties’ cooked sundry meals, including some dinners, and competed with a Tamil cook who specialises in weddings. He was hired for ten days to cook meals outside of formal events – breakfasts and occasional lunches. The formal wedding occasions take care of most dinners and, although we had been expecting maybe four formal events, we attended eight over ten days.

Initially, we stayed downstairs, in another friend’s vacant apartment. Jubilee Hills, the area we stayed in, is the centre of the Telugu film industry, or ‘Tollywood’ – until recently, the most profitable film industry in India. Even today, Andhra Pradesh and its 80 million people have more movie theatres per head than anywhere else in India.

Every morning we climbed upstairs for breakfast or, later, laggardly walked from what is known as Film Nagar up the hill and across the shortcut through the grounds of Jubilee Hills Public School. Each morning we had a different type of Indian breakfast and the food, which I acknowledge grudgingly, was very good. Sometimes we also had lunch. Both meals were provided in shifts for 20 to 40 people. At breakfast and at lunch we were offered mangoes to finish. So we had many opportunities to eat mangoes and we did not refuse. It was mango season and they were everywhere.

The mangoes we ate were mostly from three sources. Mainly they were provided by Sudhakar, Rukmini’s uncle, who goes to his mango orchard early every morning. Sudhakar does this trip throughout summer, not just for weddings, and brings back a box of mangoes every day to distribute among friends and relatives. The bride’s family also sent gifts of mangoes on several occasions. When the supply was insufficient, someone would drive down to the local mango stands.

One morning we visited Sudhakar’s mango orchard at 6.30 am. The farm is just on the outskirts of Hyderabad and is quickly being swallowed by the city. Initially, we took the long route to view the new developments in Hyderabad’s information-technology sector, passing the huge multi-hectare campuses of Microsoft, Infosys and Wipro, among others – vales of pleasant greenery behind high walls in a dry landscape full of granite boulders. But there were also plenty of other high-rises being constructed. The massive dark glass oblong of what will be a bank will house 150,000 employees when it is eventually occupied. (On the way back we took the more direct route but along muddy temporary roads, crossing the acres of new expressway under construction.)

The farm itself is a two-acre remnant of a large seven-acre plot, adjacent to Sudhakar’s village – a place seemingly destined to become a slum or be taken over by some IT complex. Outside his mango farm, Sudhakar himself is constructing a walled condominium complex, primarily for family and friends. The land here has become very valuable.

Large variety Rasulu mangoes on sale
Large variety Rasulu mangoes on sale

Sudhakar grows 19 varieties of mangoes on his two acres: Malika (meaning Queen), Benishan (Bainganpally in Telugu), Pedda Rasulu ‘sucking’ mangoes (large-sized), Chinna Rasulu (small-sized), Cheruku Rasalu (sugar cane, Rukmini’s favourite), Himayat (popular but with a bitter aftertaste), Dasheri (a North Indian variety that does not grow very large in Hyderabad), Kesari (a very popular eating mango from Gujarat), Totapuri (‘parrot’s feather’, because of its shape; two varieties, one very large), Safeda (similar to Benishan, an excellent eating mango), Alphonso (the so-called king of mangoes, from Maharastra, heavily exported particularly to West Asia), Malgoba (a round fat-looking mango), Neelum (looks green but is ready to eat), Langra (also green, grown in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal), Neelishan (a prolific producer), mango guava (so-called because of its small size); Hi (a hybrid, also very productive, the name, according to Rukmini, being indicative of the imagination of agricultural scientists), and Royal Salute (eaten green, used to flavour daals and make chutneys).

There is also another mango from near Hyderabad (though not on Sudhakar’s farm) called Azam-us-samar, originally grown in the gardens of the Muslim Nawab Azam Ali Khan at Shadnagar and, eventually, presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. This is a variety that did not spoil easily and, so the story goes, was favoured by Queen Victoria as the best of a selection from India. This variety was resurrected from extinction by an agricultural professor named Mustafa Husain, who spent 36 years in the process. That’s taking mangoes seriously!

So finally to the mangoes we ate. On the farm, the mangoes we had were freshly picked, of course, but we also saw some there that were being ripened under straw in a dark room. We ate samples of Kesari, two types of Rasalu, Alphonso and a couple of others, but this was when we had become familiar with Indian mangoes. In town we ate Benishan mangoes, the small Rasalu and a couple of others that I forgot to ask about. They were all good.

Forbidden fruit

My first experience on this trip was with Benishan and Chinna Rasalu mangoes. The latter is known as the ‘sucking’ mango. You grasp one in both hands, rotating quickly and crushing the flesh inside into a liquid pulp around the seed. Then you remove or bite off the stem and suck the juice out slowly. At the end you pop the seed out and suck up the remaining juice. This is a high-risk activity. There is a strong chance of making a mistake and spraying your nice clean social attire with mango juice. But trying not to do so is part of the entertainment.

Benishan mangoes on sale
Benishan mangoes on sale

The Benishan, meanwhile, is the most common variety available in the area. The first one I was given was a half mango for myself alone. My first two slices were a sensory shock – the shock of the new. Two paths beckoned and I could easily have taken the negative one, rejecting the mango outright because the conflicting flavours were not quite right, another example of Indian food not living up to expectation. But I continued to taste. The flavour was rich and complex, one of those indefinable things that promises almost anything and delivers several things at once.

Think of blue cheese or red wine, and possibly durian. The flavour was rich, cloying wonderfully, but at the same time hinting at over-ripeness, exotic pleasures, tropical fecundity, death and decay – a marvellous mix of pleasure and guilt. There was the hint of a forbidden fruit, the danger of letting go and becoming lost, the idea that acquiescence could lead to a loss of self, sensuous and sensual depravity and ultimately to utter moral degradation. You may think this is exaggerated, but you did not eat the mango.

The idea of such wondrous shades of flavour has been imagined for children by Enid Blyton in the Faraway Tree Series, with the sweets that keep changing taste as you suck them (not all pleasant). I had previously misunderstood the British 19th-century equivocal view on mangoes, which extended well into the 20th. This is only intimated, for example, by J B S Haldane (the British-born Indian biologist, and an unlikely candidate for cultural insensitivity) in his children’s book, My Friend Mr. Leakey (1937). Haldane has Leakey recommend that mangoes be eaten only in the bath. Others have suggested doing so only with a peg over one’s nose.

Yet the mango was an excellent if unacknowledged signifier of the Missionary Period’s dismissal of any value in Indian and other cultures, tied up with aspects of racism both overt and hidden. The British had of course tasted mangoes in India, among other things; and it was the other things that were beyond the pale. To the British, mangoes suggested dark lovers, miscegenation, letting oneself go native. In a dinner suit at over 40 degrees C, could one resist the mango’s temptation? Very messy cleaning mango off a dress shirt or crinoline – and the servants are so useless at such things!

Such expressions of pleasure were embedded in my first few mouthfuls of Indian mango – succulent and luscious are almost onomatopoeic, their sounds and feel are resonant with the mystery of mango flavour. Imagine a whole range of similar sensual words rolling off the tongue: that is similar, but still wholly unsatisfactory as a description of the taste of mango.

Ani contemplates a mango at the farm
Ani contemplates a mango at the farm

My friend and aficionado of fine mangoes, Ani, said that one always has to eat three of the fruits: the first two are OK, but the third is perfect. Ani is full of fun and has such a warm bubbling sense of humour that it took me some time to realise the profound truth of this statement. One really does have to eat three mangoes and subject oneself to the inferior to get the full rich and sensual experience of the perfect flavour. You have to endure frustration and disappointment to enjoy them. And if you cannot stand this idea, stick to the bland commercial mangoes.

That is also the truth of Indian mangoes: each one tastes different within a variety and a batch from the same tree. Even more difficult to take as a newcomer to the mangoes – my first Benishan, for instance – the taste within each mango also changes from mouthful to mouthful. Even more extraordinary, in the sucking mangoes, where you have pulped all the flavours together, you can still sense this. The experts tell me that the flavour also varies depending on the size and age of the tree, the soil it is growing in, the water regime and countless other things, just as with wines. The permutations are endless, as are the mangoes.

Ani is more than a mango lover; he is an addict. Yes, he does always eat three mangoes when one would do. He also loves jackfruit. Ani gets bad boils – he had a troublesome one on his neck at the wedding; they are a nuisance and often very painful. Ani firmly believes that mangoes cause boils. Does he stop eating mangoes? Case proven.

Linnaeus elegy

The mango Mangifera indica L. (L. is the standard abbreviation for Linnaeus; the absence of parentheses shows that this is Carl Linnaeus’s original name for the mango) is native to either eastern India or Burma. There are two races of mango, one from India and one from the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The Indian race is intolerant of humidity. The mango has been cultivated for thousands of years in India and perhaps also in Southeast Asia, although some suggest that Buddhist monks might have brought the mango to Southeast Asia during the fourth or fifth centuries AD.

Today, India accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s commercial mango production, according to the United Nations. If one includes non-measured or internal production, this figure is probably over 50 percent. The mango tree is long lived and some specimens still bear fruit after 300 years. Wikipedia offers a list of 59 cultivars grown commercially in India, but then gives over 80 for the USA. A more realistic figure for commercial varieties across India is over 30; but if one takes into account special mango trees still surviving in local villages and locally valued varieties, there would probably be many hundreds of varieties still extant in India.

11DecHSA_p1_WP

Am I happy now, having discovered something of one variety of Indian food that truly astonishes me and finally opens up the magic of Indian produce? Well, not altogether happy. In fact, I am saddened because I do not think that the wonder of Indian mangoes will last, except as print on the page.

I say this because, just as Sudhakar’s village will be swallowed up by the city, village life is changing rapidly, and with economic imperatives and the explosion of the middle class in India, no respect is given to the environment or biological diversity, or to the profound knowledge that still exists in ‘backward’ village life. Retaining the diversity of agricultural seeds or trees in the villages of South Asia is never going to rate amidst other pressures of development.

I feel betrayed by modern life and globalisation, although I know it did not have to be so.

I was not personally responsible for the demise of the vast herds of game on the African savannah. Descriptions of wildlife numbers before the intensive hunting of the 19th century are mindboggling. I was not responsible for the rinderpest virus, an epidemic of which during the 1890s wiped out many more at one stroke; nor was I responsible for the hunting in Africa and India during the 20th century. I have seen the remnants of the vast herds that used to roam the African veldt, now living in game parks in Africa; and I have seen some of the last tigers in the wild in national parks of India. I was not responsible for the hunting or for the expansion of the human population. Nonetheless, I am powerless to reverse these issues.

It is also no fault of mine that the Indian mango is going to disappear. It makes me ineffably sad that this precious resource is bound for destruction. It is only one in a chain of things – microbe, fungus, plant, invertebrate, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal – that is slowly going over the brink. Of course, many have gone already in the last few hundred years. But the Indian mango – I only just discovered it.

We cannot afford to lose any of these precious things.

11DecHSA_ACoverWP

In praise of Indian mangoes was published by Himal Southasian Magazine in December, 2011.

Key words: Indian mangoes, Thai mangoes, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India, Malika, Benishan, Bainganpally, Telugu, Pedda Rasulu, Chinna Rasulu (small-sized), Cheruku Rasalu, Himayat, Dasheri, Kesari, Totapuri, Safeda, Alphonso, Malgoba, Neelum, Langra, Neelishan, Azam-us-samar, Madhur Jaffrey, Enid Blyton, J B S Haldane, My Friend Mr. Leakey, Mangifera indica L., Linnaeus, Burma

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