What better place to start my countdown to Kolkata than with the imperial mango? Actually I was hoping that “Am” was the first word in the Bengali dictionary, which would have been a lucky coincidence. That distinction, however, goes to the Bengali word for ‘part,’ which is a less than enthusiastic blog topic. Mango comes in at a distant one hundred and fifteen. Nevertheless, the mango is significant to India, Northeast India and West Bengal in particular. This region is where the mango originated some twenty-five to thirty million years ago.
The king of fruits is a national symbol for India. The country is the world’s largest producer of mangoes (more than 50%), and, among Indians, no part of the fruit is taken lightly. All parts of the tree and fruit have been used in Ayurvedic medicine, and, if you’re a skeptic like me, you will be heartened to learn that much of it is supported by scientific evidence. Mango wood is commonly used to make furniture and other crafts. In history the mango was used to create the famous Indian Yellow. Or perhaps I should say infamous, as the dye was a product of forcing cows to feed on a diet of mango leaves, ultimately leading to their deaths. So much for sacrosanct animals. And for a final piece of trivia that you may not have known, what is now known as the paisley began with attempts to recreate the shape of a mango in art.
Buddhists consider the mango tree sacred, for it was known as the Buddha’s favorite place to rest and meditate. The mango tree was also prominent in the Islamic gardens of the Mughals.
Hindus use mango leaves in religious devotions and festivals because they represent vibrant life and prosperity. Mangoes mark the crossing into life and death, as well as the passing into marriage. Lord Ganesha, whom Hindus revere as the Remover of Obstacles, is often depicted holding a plate of mangoes in his hand, representing “attainment” or perfection. Although Ganesha was created when his mother Parvati breathed life into a handful of turmeric paste, his yellow pallor (not to mention his pot belly) may equally be a result of one too many of those mangoes.
Originally, Buddhist monks were the first distributers of the fruit, carrying mangos with them on their travels through Southeast Asia. When the Portuguese and Mughals came along they began to cultivate the plants. There now are likely more than a thousand varieties of mango in India and the subcontinent. Twenty-four of these are cultivars, meaning they were specifically developed to enhance the most desirable traits. Designer mangoes, if you will.
Most of the mangoes we consume here in North America, however, come from Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Guatemala and Haiti. But isn’t India the largest producer, you ask? Good question. Well, the 1,173,108,018 people in India consume most of them. The rest go to the Gulf, some to Britain and the final lot to Southeast Asia (as if they didn’t have enough of their own). Share the love, please! The issue of where Indian mangoes go is a sticking point with mango lovers here, which is, well, most of us. That’s because India lays claim to the uber-king of mangoes – the Alphonso.
Alphonso — such a regal name, especially considering that it could have just as easily been labeled Zebidiah, Willard, Number 11 (the poor thing lost its name in 1782 during a journey on the HMS Flora) , and perhaps most unfortunate, Turpentine. The Alphonso came to birth in Western India and is so named because the second governor of Portuguese India, Alfonso de Albuquerque, enjoyed taking them on his trips to Goa, where he’d been awarded viceroy. Alfonso also slaughtered a number of Arabs, so I guess he lucked out in being secured in memory by a fruit. Of the varieties marketed today, people consider the Alphonso the best. It is sweet and juicy, having what one chef described as an almost caramelized flavor.
In case you hadn’t heard, the Alphonsos were banned from the U.S. for eighteen years because a fruit fly pest threatened to destroy local crops. But since the ban, the numbers of Indian mangoes have only trickled in. At a prohibitive cost, too. A single Alphonso mango can cost you six and half dollars. You ain’t going to find an Alphonso at Bottom Dollar Food. I, myself, am not a drooling fan of the Alphonso. I prefer a mango that has a hint of tartness, and the Alphonso is too sweet for me. In Kolkata you find four major varieties of mango, of which the Himsagar is my favorite. Unfortunately these are not yet available in North America.
Food import restrictions affect the number of mangoes that enter the market here, and India has had to retrofit many of its irradiation plants where they clean mangoes for export. But a bigger reason why most of these don’t get out of South Asia is simply because they have a delicate skin not fit for travel. Even more of a concern – and this leaves me with a bit of sadness for the state of food diversity — is that Indian mangoes (despite their being the original mangoes) don’t look like typical North American mangoes. Over here, the quintessential mango is the Tommy Atkins. Eighty percent of the mango market in the West is filled by this beautiful, voluptuous mango that dazzles with its red, gold and green-hued skin. Are you salivating yet? Well, don’t. The Tommy Atkins, a generic name given to the common British soldier, is a mediocre choice of fruit. Developers in the 1920s in Florida knew that it didn’t have the best taste, but the mango proliferated, it was large, disease resistant, and its thick skin allowed it to travel well. It was also pretty. Can’t deny that. Indian mangoes, on the other hand, look like shrinking kidneys, ripen to a monochrome yellow or green, and offer up thin skins for brutal assault.
But if you’re a mango fanatic, and you’re willing to part with some of your precious greenbacks, there are places you can go to find Indian mangoes. Your first stop might be the bookstore, to pick up Allen Susser’s, The Great Mango Book – a primer on the king of fruits. Next, check for mangoes during the proper season. In India, the peak season for mangoes is March through May. Your first stop on any search for mangoes should be Asian and Latino markets. If you find no luck there, I suggest you try out a high-end grocery store in your town, a place like Whole Foods. The Alphonso crop is expected to increase by 25% this year, so you should be able to find some. Finally, to ensure your place in the mango distribution chain, you can special order boxes of mangoes online. Try your luck with mangozz or Sudhir Traders.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a traditional Bengali recipe, am jhol, a cool, soup-like mango chutney that can be sipped from bowls towards the end of a Bengali meal. Bengali cuisine is the only truly Indian cuisine with a multi-course tradition. Traditionally, chutneys are served to help clear the palate before the most important course: the sweet. This recipe, from our Bengali cook, Alta, is simple and straightforward, and should take you no more than half an hour in the kitchen. Most of the ingredients – even the mangoes—you should be able to find in a regular supermarket. However, to locate dried red chili you may have to check out your local Asian grocery market. Alternatively, you can order Bengali groceries online at Kalustyan’s, which is based in New York City.
½ tsp. mustard seeds
1 dried red chili
2 unripe, green mangoes
½ tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. oil
1 ½ cups water
Salt and sugar to taste
First, peel and cut the mangoes into bite-size pieces and lightly wash. Heat the oil in a pan and, when it is hot, add the mustard seeds. Break the red chili in pieces and add it to the pan. Next, add the mango and the turmeric powder. Cook for another minute on low heat. Finally add the water, and the salt and sugar to your taste. Let the mixture simmer on low heat until the mangoes are tender but not pulpy. The liquid will thicken slightly, but you should still have enough gravy for the mixture to look soupy. The am johl should taste sweet and sour and more refreshing than spicy. If the red chili is too spicy, feel free to reduce the amount of chili you include, or take out the chili a little early.