Ode to the mango
The mango reigns supreme in the kitchen and our cultural imagination.
Photo: Rupa Gopal
Reigning supreme: The ripe fruit has inspired weavers and jewellers.
Mangifera indica is a national treasure. The mango, as it is commonly known, is India's national fruit, and the king among fruits all over the world. First mentioned in Hindu scriptures around 4,000 B.C., the wild mango grew at the foothills of the Himalayas, extending into present-day Myanmar. By 200 B.C., this venerable tree became a cultivated species.
The great Indian poet Kalidas penned lyrical praises about the mango, Alexander relished it, Hieun Tsang loved it, and took it with him to China in the seventh century A.D. The great Mughal Akbar planted 1,00,000 mango trees in Darbhanga, calling the estate Lakhibag.
The Caliph of Baghdad, in the seventh century A.D. brewed a mango liqueur that took six to 12 months to ferment. The tree went from Persia to Africa around 1000 A.D. Buddhist monks brought the mango to Malaysia and East Asia. It is said that the Portuguese even fought a war, incited by the mango.
Indian legend states that Suryabai was the daughter of the fiery Sun. She transformed herself into a golden lotus to evade an evil sorcerer. The lotus entranced a king. The angry sorcerer burnt the lotus but a mango tree emerged from the ashes.
The tree is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. Buddha was gifted a mango grove to rest in. Thus the Buddhists hold the tree to be holy, capable of granting wishes. The Hindus too consider it to be a kalpavriksha, or giver of boons.
Indeed, the holy mango tree in Kanchipuram, at the Ekambareswar temple, is said to be 3,500 years old. Its branches yield four different types of fruit, and women who want children are said to eat the fruit. Parvati did penance under this tree to marry Shiva who came to earth to wed her.
The maankani thirunaal is another legend associated with the mango. Karaikal Ammaiyar, a staunch devotee of Shiva, is said to have offered curd rice and mangoes to the Lord on a full moon day. This custom is followed every year in the temple at Karaikal, Tamil Nadu. And most people know the story of the fruit of dissension between Muruga and Ganesha in which the divine brothers had to circle the earth and come back to Parvati for a prize of a single ripe mango. While Muruga earnestly flew round the world on his peacock, Ganesha mischievously circled his parents, who meant the entire world to him, and bore away the prized fruit. The offended Muruga retreated to Palani Hills, now one the most sacred of Muruga shrines.
With such delectable legends, it is natural that the fruit is also extraordinary. The golden fruit has peels of varying thickness and the pulp has a hint of turpentine about it. Some varieties can be very fibrous, while others are so smooth as to simply melt. The milky sap gives most people a skin allergy but can easily avoided with a little careful handling.
A mature mango tree yields fruit for about 40 years. Its spreading branches burst into tender leaf, described by Kalidas as similar to a young maiden's lips. The combination of the tender leaf's red and green has been immortalised in South Indian silk as the "maanthulir". The tree breaks into flower by end-Feburary. Soon the tree is covered with tiny green mangoes some varieties hang in bunches, some individually.
Sweet mangoes attract insects, even in the flowering stage. The insect sits on the flower, and the fruit grows around it. The insect, trapped alive inside, has already feasted on the mango even before it ripens.
Plucking the mangoes is a big event. The elders in the family sit in the shade, and supervise. A professional is brought in to climb the high branches. Each mango is caught in a large net,attached to a long stick. A deft flick of the hand and the mango stalk is cut with a small sharp blade attached to the end of the stick. The netted mangoes are lowered safely to the ground and laid out on a sack. It's a day of great excitement for young ones, quick to pounce in on the raw mangoes, adding to the melee amidst the debris of fallen leaves and twigs. The mango was actually one of the great unifiers in a family, with most adults having fond memories of large family homes, huge fruit trees, and simple contentment.
The mango is many healthy benefits. Its papain-like enzyme is good for digestion and purifies the intestines. It's an antioxidant, and also good for cardiovascular conditions. Many Indians consider the mango to be a blood builder, and good for anaemia due to its high iron content. It is also said to be good for alleviating menstrual and muscular cramps. The fruit has a high potassium and magnesium content.
Mango juice has also been proven to kill certain viruses. It also has good fibre, beta-carotene, vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B6, zinc and calcium. The fruit is also effective in cooking as a meat tenderiser and flavour enhancer.
Mango wood makes good furniture and handicrafts, and villagers are known to use its tender twigs as toothbrushes.
The mango is an auspicious tree to have in one's garden. Its leaves are used to decorate doorways, as a toranam, or a string of tied leaves, to symbolise divinity. The leaves are used in worship also. The fruit has long been considered a sacred symbol of fertility and the yellow-orange colour of the ripe fruit is an auspicious shade for saris and garments. Jewellery too has made use of the mango, with traditional gold and diamond ornaments made with the mango motif the maangai maalai (mango necklace) is a must in every bride's jewel box. Silk saris have always used traditional motifs and the mango is a time-honoured one, woven intricately in gold or silver thread, into sensuous silks. Weddings too have been held in mango orchards, designer weddings with the blessings of the boon-giving tree.
The mango reigns supreme in the kitchen too. Pickle making is an adventure by itself, taking up the better part of a morning. Tongue-tickling pickles, hot and sweet, dry and oily, fresh and preserved, are made from the mango as perfect tart accompaniments to Indian meals. Jams and jellies, chutneys and salads go well with western dishes too.
Indeed, an abiding memory of Thailand for me is its Floating Market near Ratchaburi. The ladies on the tiny boats sell such sumptuous hot food prepared in a jiffy. One of the most popular dishes is that of fried snake fish heaped with a delectable salad slices of fresh raw mango mixed with fish sauce, lime juice, peanuts, red chilly hand pounded roughly, sugar, fresh coriander leaves and fresh onion shoots. The taste lingers in my memory, even years later.
Mango kulfi, lassi, mango sandesh, aam ras eaten with hot puris, rasayana (mango kheer in Karnataka), fresh fruit salad, the superb aam papad of North India, aamchur powder (dry mango powder) added to dishes, mango toast, mango burfi, mango cooler made from raw mango, crushed and mixed with sugar syrup, cardamom and saffron, mango pulav, murabba it's all simply too much for the palate.
The roads are piled with ripe fruit Sindura, Banganapalli, Neelam, Javadu, Malgoa, Kadir, Daseri, and the heavenly Alphonso, the king of mangoes, grown chiefly in Maharashtra and Salem, in Tamil Nadu. It was to see the monsoon rains, and taste the Alphonso that the newly petro-rich Arabs came to Bombay, in the early 1970s. Ever since, it is the Indian's grouse that Bombay's Crawford Market has no Alphonsos to sell to the Indians, as the Arabs take it all. The Malgoa too is an outstanding fruit, with a unique flavour and texture.
Pickle mangoes too are heaped on pavements and in markets small round ones for vadumaangai and big firm ones for aavakkai. The seller also handily chops the hard raw fruit, with kernel, for pickling.
The trees have become personal symbols, reminding descendants of loved old family members, providing solace and enjoyment in the most beautiful way.
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