Never Mind Monsoon Season--Mango Mania Strikes India Again

Times Staff Writer

One of the hotels here held a mango festival recently. As it turned out, it was more of a mango orgy--a truly magnificent excess in the name of India's favorite fruit, Mangifera indica. June and July are the peak mango months in north India, the time when the fabled Lucknow varieties, the dusehri and the chowsa , ripen with a rosy blush and make their way to market in Delhi.

The fruit sellers arrange elaborate displays in their stalls, and the fruit is fondled, sniffed, compared, criticized, tasted and bought. Prices, by Indian standards, can be high--up to 50 cents a pound.

At this time of year--it is the hottest season here, when temperatures commonly exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit--many middle-class families serve mangoes at every meal. The mango is often the only solace against the heat.

In 1942, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her husband went up into the mountains of Kashmir to escape the awful heat, and sent a telegram to her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, in Delhi: "We wish we could send you some cool breeze from here."

Nehru replied: "Thanks. But you have no mangoes."

To many, that may seem a non sequitur, but to anyone who knows Delhi in summer, it makes perfect sense.

Long, detailed feature articles about mangoes appear in the newspapers here in June and July, along with color photographs.

Wild Mango of Borneo

A recent issue of the Patriot carried an article headlined "Sweetest Mango Rediscovered." Under a Bombay dateline, it said: "The wild mango of Borneo, described as the sweetest of all varieties in the tropics, has been rediscovered after 85 years of apparent extinction." The information was attributed to a group identified as the World Wildlife Fund International Union for Conservation of Nature, Wild Mango Project.

Scientific texts on mangoes make no mention of the "wild mango of Borneo . . . twice as big as the Indian one." This was clearly a bit of mango humor.

But the mango festival was no joke. It was serious mango time at the tables set up around the hotel's pool. Participants in the two-week festival were handed a mango-shaped menu offering mango cocktail, mango panna (green mango pulp mixed with water and salt that is reputed to be a cure for the effects of the hot afternoon wind, the loo ) and chaat (mango with hot peppers and potatoes).

Diners had a choice of three main courses: chicken mango, mutton mango and vegetarian mixed mango chutney. Side dishes included Bombay red mango and curds, mango rice, mango salad and green mango bread, aam ka paratha . To wash it all down, there was mango punch, and for dessert there was a choice of sliced mango with cream, mango jam and, as the piece de resistance, a mango souffle.

4,000 Years of Cultivation

There are reasons for this seemingly obsessive mania for mangoes, not the least of which is the excellent quality of India's mangoes. They have been perfected by more than 4,000 years of cultivation in soil and climate (mangoes need very high temperatures to ripen properly) ideally suited for the mango tree, which is native to the Indian subcontinent and the Indo-Malaysian archipelago.

At his Kaka Foods stall in the national airport market, Rajender Kumar extols the virtues of the Bombay Alphonso, a large, orange mango with a tinge of muted red. His tone is reverent, and he cradles each piece of fruit gently in his hand.

"The mango is India," Kumar said, "and Alphonso is the best. Good smell and sweet. We are sending these mangoes to Dubai and Kuwait and London."

There are more than 1,000 varieties of mango in India. About 65% of the world's mangoes are grown here, although the fruit is also grown in 85 other countries, including the United States. Most American mangoes are grown in Florida, and Florida's mangoes can be traced to 35 trees shipped there from Calcutta in 1888.

It is difficult to describe the special taste of the Indian mango, possibly because there are so many varieties. The yellow langra mango and the safeda malihabad might be said by a novice to taste like an apple. Others taste like pears and still others like strawberries or peaches.

Yet many Indians can tell by simply smelling the fruit, or even the leaf from the tree, what variety of mango they are dealing with, and even the state and city where it was grown. To the refined taste, the mango has several qualities, and the Indian appreciation for the mango is unrivaled, save for the French appreciation of wine.

Poor Wine Makers

In parts of India, the soil and climate are described as ideal for grapes, yet India produces some of the foulest wine in the world. The "date of manufacture" is stamped on the label, and the label states with accuracy that "consumption of liquor is injurious to health."

But this seems to bother almost no one. The mango more than fills the gap.

The Indians' love of mangoes is reflected in the names they give their fruits. Some have as many as 20 names. Some are named for kings (Himayuddin, Jehangir). Others bear the names of top administrative titles from the days of British rule (Jailor, Collector). One is simply called "the Fruit of Heaven."

Along with their love for the mango, Indians have a disdain for the ability of any non-Indian, particularly any Westerner, to appreciate its subtleties. At an informal mango-tasting session at the home of a Delhi-based American, the assembled servants laughed haughtily when the American chose as his personal favorite a mango known as the safeyd .

"I knew you would pick that one," the cook said. "It is the one that tastes most like apple."

How to Eat a Mango?

The greatest single obstacle challenging Westerners who want to affect some expertise in mangoes is the mango itself--how to eat it. Those who have confronted the fruit know the problem: the slipperiness of the fruit and the huge central seed that clings to the fruit.

Neophytes may approach the mango in the most disciplined manner, but even if the fruit is of the largest type--a wild mango of Borneo, perhaps--they are likely to end up covered with slime and with only a few shreds of meat to show for their hacking.

Indians, of course, have their own ways of getting around the problem; any youngster can expertly separate seed from fruit. But the most popular method requires no skill with a knife, as Louis Fischer reported in his biography of Mahatma Gandhi.

On being handed a mango, he said: "I began to peel it, and several people, Gandhi too, laughed. He explained that they usually turned it in their hands and squeezed it to make it soft and then sucked on one end. . . ."

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