The aam party
In the season of heat and mellow fruitfulness, an ode to the mango
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This is one of my mother’s favourite tales from her childhood. She and her siblings and cousins are sitting in the verandah of their Dehradun home around a large tub of mangoes –tiny, but fully ripe and intensely delicious – the sort that in our family are dubbed “choosoo” mangoes (sucking mangoes). All the kids are in the moment, making tiny holes in the mango, hoovering up the ambrosial pulp and juice efficiently and tearing off the skin with their teeth, sucking the mango stone noisily. My mother, aged about 12, sucks up her tiny mango a little too efficiently, and the stone gets lodged in her throat. Gesticulating wildly she tries to catch the attention of her flesh and blood, but the mango mania has everyone in its grip; no one can be bothered to look up at a lurching, asphyxiating sister/ cousin who is slowly turning puce.
My mother obviously survived to tell the tale, but learnt an important life lesson that day—mango love trumps sibling love. And, frankly, that’s how it should be. Because, while siblings are wonderful and can often be counted on to do useful things and should be saved from asphyxiation whenever possible, eating good mangoes is like communing with God—absolutely no human interference should be brooked.
Because mangoes aren’t just nature’s way of giving all Indians a divine reward for the long brutal summer we face, but a declaration that perfection is possible. And edible. That decadence and virtue can coexist in harmony and that happiness can be measured in mouthfuls. Mangoes are luscious and sinful, addictive and delirium-inducing and, as any mango lover knows, they are what joy tastes like.
Everyone has their favourite mangoes. Me, I’m an equal opportunity mango lover. I love almost all mangoes indiscriminately, but I’m partial to the choosoo mangoes, the ones that almost made a martyr of my mother. All they need is some time in a tub of cold water to become tiny pieces of edible paradise. I love how eating them is an act of abandonment: One is forced to give up any pretence of adulthood and sophistication and to use teeth, fingers, tongue, everything to mop up the succulent flesh and juice. They are sweet, but not cloying, and it is possible for one person of average greed levels to eat half a sack of these yummies without feeling sick.
At the diametrically opposite end of the spectrum from these humble offerings are the Alphonso mangoes. Expensive, posh and mostly grown for export, the Alphonso mango is clearly the prom queen of the mango world—admired, fetishized, craved and dismissed in equal measure. In my view, there is no debate at all: Eating an Alphonso mango plucked at the right time and allowed to ripen without haste and without intervention is an act of humbling providence. It is like coming face to face with one of the universe’s essential truths. The aroma, flavour, texture and taste of a fragrant Alphonso is a gift from a munificent God—and sniffing in the face of gifts is incredibly ill bred and to be avoided at all costs.
When we were kids in Lucknow, my father used to get us these huge baskets of the most elegant Dasheris from Malihabad. I remember almost weeping with gratitude as we systematically demolished each shining jewel from that basket every day of Dasheri season. Somehow, either the best Dasheris never leave Lucknow any more, or I’m just the world’s worst spotter and buyer of good Dasheris—I’ve never ever been able to recapture that delirious haze of childhood lust and love.
Then there are the usual suspects, the pantheon of the major mango gods. The Malda, lush and abundant, the Chaunsa, which I love, bursting with juice and pulp and joy. There’s the Banganapalli, from the South, which, I think, every true mango lover has to taste in this lifetime. The Gulab Khas mangoes from Bengal are as succulent as they are fragrant, and when the people who make the best mishti in the land drool over mangoes, you better believe the mangoes are worth it.
I like even the minor mango gods: the Badamis and the tart Totapuris from the south, the blushing Sindooris, the patriotic Kesars. However, at the risk of getting lynched, I have to say I eat, but absolutely can’t get passionate about either the what-papayas-want-to-grow-up-to-be Safedas or the the fibre-less Pairis that Gujaratis milk deliriously to get aamras. (For those who don’t know, aamras is the one and only blight on the cuisine of Gujarat: Why in God’s name would one want to puree a fruit and then eat it with puris?)
For me, the mango-est of all mangoes is the Langra, I love it helplessly and devotedly; every mouthful is always heaven, every bite a pilgrimage of pleasure and passion. I love how generously proportioned the fruit is, the deceptive green outside, lemon yellow inside hinting at teeth-enamel-scouring sourness, and then the visceral shock of the voluptuousness of its taste. Slightly tart, incredibly flavourful, just sweet enough to be seductive, it is the most playful of all mangoes; in my heaven, the cold tubs of water will never ever run out of Langras for me to sink my chops into.
But here’s the thing, I realize that there are so many incredible mangoes that I haven’t ever tasted—mangoes that could maybe push the Langra to Pairi-level sniffiness in my book if I could only taste them. Because, however greedy I am and however hard I look, it’s hard to get mangoes from everywhere, everywhere. Some just don’t travel well, some are produced just to meet local demand and for some, those of us ignorant of their charms don’t even know what to ask or look for.
Here are just a few of them:
1. The mango that is rumoured to be even more impressive than its grand name: the Imam Pasand from the South, which in the new world order may have to be renamed Ram Pasand in order to survive.
2. The Mankurad from Goa, which is I believe a mango of singular beauty and joy.
3. The Rataul and the Makhsoos, small sunshine yellow mangoes, succulent and sweet as stolen kisses.
4. The Laxman Bhog, the Himsagar and the Fazli from the east, all rumoured to be superstars in their own right.
5. The Neelam and the Mallika, which I have heard people burst into tears describing.
This, then, is my bucket list. It’s all the mangoes that I want to sample, the ones that I have heard of that I haven’t yet managed to get my greedy paws on. Anyone who can tell me how and where I can order any of these, or in fact anyone with any suggestions of any others I need to taste, please feel free to email me. If you’d like to make a more forceful point, stuffing your favourites in a carton and mailing them to me would also work admirably.
Remember, as a devotee of your favourite variety of mango, it is your sacred duty to enlighten and educate those of us who haven’t had the opportunities to have reached your level of discernment.