Sometime in March last year, singer Ariana Grande tweeted a short verse that garnered several thousand likes and retweets:
He visits my town once a year.
He fills my mouth with kisses and nectar.
I spend all my money on him.
Who, girl, your man?
No, a mango.
This ode to the mango was written by mystic Sufi poet Amir Khusrau at the turn of the 14th century as a discussion between two young women (translated by Paul Losensky and Sunil Sharma). The spirit of this mango-loving woman lives on in India several hundred years later. And love of the mango unites Indians as much as it divides them.
Some of the most vociferous food fights in India happen over the subject of the mango. Everyone has a favorite variety; the reasons are various, from the region of origin to the color of the skin, taste and texture of the fruit and even whether it is available early in the season or is one of the late bloomers. Whatever the preference though, almost everyone in the country will agree that the succulent, sweet mango is one of the few things that makes the scorching Indian summer bearable.
It is strange for something that also translates to common in Hindi (aam), the mango is considered the king of fruits. It is perhaps because the mango is native to India, unlike other fruit such as the pineapple, pomegranate and guava, which were brought in by the Mughal ruler Babur (who famously lamented about missing the luscious melons of his home Samarkand in central Asia) and then Portuguese and British colonizers.
Or it could be perhaps because eating the mango is an art that calls for complete abandon, leaving your inhibitions behind along with the cutlery. All your senses come into play, as you examine the color of the skin, smell the sweetness, squeeze mildly to check for ripeness, and finally slurp at the fleshy juiciness bit by bit, even as you try to ignore the squelchy sounds: overall an experience much more pleasant than it sounds.
Whatever the reason, Indians can never agree on which mango is best. The alphonso—a product of the fecund west coast of India—finds its way to Mumbai, and the hearts and hands of loyalists who swear there is no better fruit in the world. Those from the hot and humid southern states sniff with disdain and point to the plentiful Mallika, Malgova, Badami, Neelam, and the ubiquitous Banganpalli. Meanwhile, mango snobs from the northern heartlands eagerly await the Dussheri, Kesar, Langda, and Imampasand varieties, each making an appearance in the market at specific times during the long summer.
Early in the season, street markets are flooded with big and small raw mangoes—green, tart and crunchy—waiting to be turned into fiery aam ka achar (mango pickle) with generous heaps of red chilli powder and preserved with mustard or sesame oil, and cooling aam panna (raw mango juice), where the pulp is boiled with sugar and some cumin powder for a spice hit.
Soon the temperature soars to blistering highs, bringing with it the lingering scent of the ripe fruit in the dry afternoon breeze. And that is when the fruit really comes into its own. Families gather to spend hours eating luscious mangos, sucking at the stone until it is left dry and white. Some of it gets put away for delicious aamras (chilled puree with a pinch of cardamom powder), into which hot puri (fried flatbreads) is dipped for dinner. Or perhaps for tall glasses of mango lassi (yogurt blended with the fruit) as a refreshing evening drink. The already sugary fruit gets converted into desserts like the milk-based barfi, or in the hands of more adventurous cooks, a mango cheesecake or mousse. Trendy pubs concoct mango martinis, while roadside juice stalls blend the fruit with milk for a filling smoothie.
More than 40% of the world’s mango cultivation now happens in India, making it the largest grower of the fruit. Although there is no definite count, it is estimated that there are over 1,500 Indian mango varieties from practically all over the country. But the mango is not new to India, with references to the fruit found in Indian scriptures from over 4,000 years ago. And it is believed that the word mango itself comes from “mangai” in Tamil, the ancient Dravidian language.
Not surprisingly, the mango has a significant place in Indian literature and mythology, as well as contemporary culture, with poets and writers attributing romantic virtues to this fruit. Sanskrit poet Kalidasa (believed to have lived around the 1st century) has written about the “First mango twig, so pink, so green; First living breath of spring,” in his opus Shakuntala. Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib described the mango as “Delicious wine filled in a sealed glass.” The mango’s sinuous teardrop shape has also been long co-opted into textile and décor design as the popular paisley motif (also found in Iran). Mango leaves, considered to be symbols of prosperity and fertility, are strung across doors during festivals and occasions.
For, as Khusrau also wrote:
The choicest fruit of Hindustan,
For garden’s pride the mango is sought;
Ere ripe, other fruits to cut we ban,
But mango serves us ripe or not.