At the more egalitarian markets of Mumbai, in the small lanes leading to the city’s suburban stations, piled up prettily on ordinary cane tokris are the more artless mangoes that rarely cost more than Rs50 a kg. Some are so unsophisticated that the vendor bagging the fruit at Rs30 a kg cannot even put a name to it.
“Junneri,” says the man hawking a red mango with green shoulders, trying to avoid the topic. Junneri? All it means is that it grows in Junner, in the higher reaches of the Western Ghats. This lesser variety of Alphonso grows so poorly that it’s stuck with
being the name of the place.
But there is a world beyond the fibreless, aromatic pleasantness of the Alphonso, though you won’t find it till you go looking for it. Certainly, in most parts of Maharashtra, and definitely Mumbai, for the first two months of the fruit’s season, Alphonso becomes synonymous with the word mango and is spoken of in tones of great reverence. And it is only once the Alphonso exits the market mid-May, that mango lovers settle reluctantly for wannabe varieties: Payari and Kesar, from the West, and later, Dassehri, Langda, Safeda and Chausa from the North. In the South, the markets are bursting with mangoes which are very popular in their own boroughs. The Imam Pasand from the Telangana region, for instance, is highly priced because it yields a limited crop. It fetches Rs25,000 for a tonne, a price that is half that of the Alphonso, but high nevertheless.
Other southern varieties such as the tart Totapuris are known elsewhere, too. Banganapallis and Badamis, too, join the export bandwagon in small numbers. And then there are also the shy, retiring types few across the South talk about: Sindhura, Malgova, Roomani, Neelam, Mundappa, Pedarasam, Cherukurasam—keep a sharp look out and you may just spot some of these in the smaller markets.
Even other varieties grown on the same soil as the Alphonso don’t get any of its price or fan following. Ulhas Laujekar and his brother own orchards in the fertile Ratnagiri belt and grow mostly Alphonsos. But they spare around 3% of their land for the humbler Payari. This mango is close to the Alphonso in taste. In fact, says Laujekar, it is more fragrant and durable, but still sells at half the price.
“There are 103 types of mangoes in the country, enough to suit different taste buds, but most are just not commercially exploited enough,” he says.
The precise words of a farmer sitting thousands of miles away at Bakshi Ka Talab on the left bank of the Gomti river, in the mango belt of Malihabad in Uttar Pradesh. Retired engineer and gentleman farmer V.S. Chauhan cultivates a 11.5 acre mango farm. It yields a crop of Dassehri, Chausa and Safeda— mangoes that come into the market in the later months of summer. These mangoes are popular in markets in other regions too, but go mostly to consumers in northern cities such as Delhi, Chandigarh, Shimla and Jhansi. By the time the fruit is the size of a large jamun, the merchants arrive to buy the crop from Chauhan. But its sales or exports are nowhere near the numbers Alphonsos can aspire to.
“We just don’t get promoted enough even though Dassehris are extremely sweet,” says Chauhan. “Look at Pakistan, they are selling their Chausas so well in London.”
The complaint is the same in the Deccan where the lesser-known mangoes get the royal ignore in the big markets. “Give me government support and infrastructure, and I promise you local varieties such as Malgova, Mallika, Kalapahar and Sindhura will overtake Alphonso in global popularity,” declares Ayaz Pasha, president of the Bangalore Fruit Commission Agents’ Association.
As with many in the trade, he is respectful of the Alphonso’s power. The mango has great aroma, shelf life (its pulp can last up to 24 months) and a medium-level sweet quotient, which is why westerners love the Alphonso and why—like the Basmati for subcontinental rice—it has come to define the mango. It is also fairly fibreless, and few mangoes have all three qualities. B.C. Reddy, director of the Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture, says the western and Japanese palate do not appreciate the Dassehri’s sugary sweetness. But it is very popular among the Indian population in the Gulf.
But, says Pasha, no true mango lover would ever disregard crops other than the Alphonso. Consider the Kalapahar. A small fruit and very sweet—its juice has been likened to honey—it is unlikely to find favour with western palates. Grown in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (and, strangely, also in Murshidabad, West Bengal), its demand is limited to a handful of connoisseurs.
Ironically, that is how the Malgova acquired its epithet of ‘King of Fruits’. Local legend has it that Mysore’s Hyder Ali, father of Tipu, had an orchard of the Malgova mango: Each fruit from the orchard weighed 1 to 1.5kg. Displayed in fruit stalls amid the pretty Sindhuras and the petite Badamis (as the Alphonso is known in Karnataka), the Malgova, though smaller in size today, still looks ungainly. But the taste is distinctive, worthy of a food memory.
Decades ago, when matinee idols in Tamil and Malayalam films ran out of poetic comparisons for the beauty of their incomparable heroines, they often resorted to the Malgova. Mambazha kootatthil malgovayanu nee (Among mangoes, you are like the Malgova), ran a blockbuster song.
Pasha is also optimistic about the possibilities of the Mallika, a variety created by crossing the Totapuri, Uttar Pradesh’s famed Dassehri and the indigenous Sindhura, which carries a blush that no amount of chemicals can introduce to a fruit.
In the East, it’s the fleshy, golden-yellow, super-sweet Himsagar, grown largely in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, that tips the popularity scales much more than Alphonso (possibly for reasons of distance and perishability). Feriskhas, from the same region, is less known, but equally juicy and flavourful. Bombai is now the stuff of legends; the provenance of the ones now available is suspect—as is the flavour and taste. Connoisseurs, though, still swear by the Langra, smaller, daintier and slightly fibrous, with an unexpected tartness that lends an edge to the taste.
While there are almost as many varieties of the mango as there are districts growing them, the Golapkhas is Kolkata’s own: Legend has it that it was transplanted to Tollygunge—now in the heart of South Kolkata, once a wilderness—by the nawabs of Mysore. As the name suggests, it is tinged with the colour of the rose and the taste, too, is redolent of the flower.
Santosh Patil of Maharastra’s directorate of horticulture has an interesting story to narrate. Last year, Japanese importer Taizo Masuda came looking for mangoes and found to his dismay that he was late for the Alphonso. On Patil’s advice, he took back the Kesar from Latur, and it went down so well with customers that he’s back this year for more.
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