Dear Readers, my Mum often used to get ‘stuck’ on a particular foodstuff, which she would eat daily for weeks. One year it was an apple with a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Another year it was those ‘fruit corner’ yoghurts. Then there was the time of the Solero ice lollies (tropical fruit flavour only if you please). But at some point she was introduced to the delights of a ripe mango, and that was it. She bought them by the boxful, and the sound of slurping and licking of fingers was often a bit much for the more delicate among us. How she loved them!
And then one day the inevitable happened (just after I’d sourced a box of Alphonso mangos, naturally). As usual, Mum cut one as close as she could to the skin on either side of the stone, cut the flesh into cubes, and after the first nibble she looked up, astonished.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘I think I’ve gone off of these’.
And that was that. Never a mango crossed her lips again.
So when I was presented with a red mango in my fruit and veg box today, it brought back so many memories. But sad to say, I have never had a really good ripe mango in the UK since the days of getting them for Mum. Are they storing them differently, I wonder? They seem stringier and more insipid than I remember them, and like so many other things they go from as hard as a shot putt to rotten without any intervening period. When I’ve been travelling, though (remember those days?) I have been party to some exquisite mangoes, ripened gently on the tree in someone’s garden and picked at the perfect moment.
Mango is an Asian fruit, and is the National Fruit of India, and National Tree of Bangladesh. There are 27 edible species. The most familiar to us, and the most commonly cultivated, is Mango indica. All mangoes are in the cashew family (Anacardiaceae).
Tropical mangoes (such as those from the Philippines) are typically yellow, while sub-tropical mangoes, from the cooler parts of India, are usually red and green, like my fruit. The world’s highest selling cultivar, Tommy Atkins, is liked because of (guess what) its transportability, long shelf life and ease of handling. Personally I much prefer Alphonsos, but there have been problems with importation, due to fear of bringing in, among other things, ‘non-European fruit flies’. The EU ban was lifted in 2015, but I well remember the 2014 ‘year without Alphonsos’. The season is short, but the fruit is remarkably lacking in the stringy fibres of other cultivars. India has a large number of different varieties, but exports very little – the Indian people very sensibly eat their mangoes themselves. The goddess Ambika is traditionally shown sitting under a mango tree, after all.
I love mangoes in desserts, and one of my favourites is mango shrikhand, a thick, creamy south Indian delicacy made with thickened yoghurt, cardamom, saffron, pistachios and mango. Oh my goodness! I used to go to a restaurant called Diwana on Drummond Street in Euston for their vegetarian food but in particular for the shrikhand. There’s a recipe here How could you resist?
Incidentally, when mangoes were first discovered by the West, they were largely eaten as pickles, because they would rot before they could get there. So, the first taste of a mango was likely to have been a sour, pungent, hot affair, rather than the sweetness that we associate with them – there’s what looks like a great recipe here. Amchoor, or mango powder, is another popular ingredient in South Asian food, and adds a similar sourness.
Now, as you might expect, mangoes are not only eaten by humans, and lots of animals are involved in the dispersal of those giant seeds. In Florida (where the Tommy Atkins comes from) deer, squirrels and raccoons all eat the fruit. In tropical zones parrots, hornbills and lorikeets enjoy them, and monkeys and apes will eat them by the bucketload. Fruit bats also have a particular liking for a ripe mango. As the seed can happily survive a trip through an animal’s alimentary tract (if the seed is small enough and the animal is large), the seedlings often pop up a long distance from the ‘mother plant’, which is presumably why the fruit is so tasty. Elephants also eat mangoes, and in this they probably take on the role of the extinct gomphothere, which was also involved in the distribution of avocado seeds.
What pollinates a mango, though? The flowers are plentiful but very simple in design, so it might come as no surprise that the main pollinators appear to be flies, along with solitary bees, some beetles and even ants. In fact, in India a method of attracting flies that was trialled involved hanging bags full of rotten fish or mutton from the tree branches. Although mango flowers are actually hermaphroditic, fruit production was much higher when the plant was cross-pollinated by insects.
As you might expect from a plant that has grown in the company of humans for such a long time, mango has been used for an extraordinary range of medical purposes. Here is an excerpt from a paper on the National Library of Medicine website.
Studies indicate mango possesses antidiabetic, anti-oxidant, anti-viral, cardiotonic, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory properties. Various effects like antibacterial, anti fungal, anthelmintic, anti parasitic, anti tumor, anti HIV, antibone resorption, antispasmodic, antipyretic, antidiarrhoeal, antiallergic, immunomodulation, hypolipidemic, anti microbial, hepatoprotective, gastroprotective have also been studied. These studies are very encouraging and indicate this herb should be studied more extensively to confirm these results and reveal other potential therapeutic effects. Clinical trials using mango for a variety of conditions should also be conducted.
And here’s me thinking that mangoes are just tasty! The texture of the fruit of a good mango always screams ‘moisturising’ to me, and if only I could stop myself from eating them I might try plastering them all over my face to see if they help with my dry skin. This is probably not a good idea – some people have a very bad allergic reaction to mango flesh so maybe best to stick to the Oil of Ulay (though my Mum had a reaction to that too!)
And here, finally, a poem, by the inimitable Mary Oliver, who is up there with my top five favourite poets. I love the way that she shifts from the experience of eating the fruit to something else entirely.
The Mango by Mary Oliver
I met the mango.
At first there were four or five of them
in a bowl.
They looked like stones you find
in the rivers of Pennsylvania
when the waters are low.
That size, and almost round.
But this was a rich house, and clever too.
After salmon and salads,
mangoes for everyone appeared on blue plates,
each one cut in half and scored
and shoved forward from its rind, like an orange flower,
cubist and juicy.
When I began to eat
All through the sweetness I heard voices,
men and women talking about something—
another country, and trouble.
It wasn’t my language, but I understood enough.
Jungles, and death. The ships
leaving the harbors, their holds
filled with mangoes.
Children, brushing the flies away
from their hot faces
as they worked in the fields.
Men, and guns.
The voices all ran together
so that I tasted them in the taste of the mango,
a sharp gravel in the flesh.
Later, in the kitchen, I saw the stones
like torn-out tongues
embedded in the honeyed centers.
They were talking among themselves—
a few lines of a song.
Photo One By Ram Kulkarni – Photograph taken by a digital camera, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14897964
Photo Two By G patkar at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10899806
Photo Three By Y.Shishido – http://pipimaru.dyndns.org/india_2004/index.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365739
Photo Four from https://www.manjulaskitchen.com/mango-shrikhand/
Photo Five By Unic – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24434273
Photo Six from http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/trec/2018/06/21/378/