It’s been well over two months since we were in India, and this post is incredibly overdue, but it’s a cool fall day in New York—and that’s got me daydreaming about sunnier climes and sunnier fruit, namely Bangalore before the monsoons hit and the rich, warm delight of a perfect mango.
It’s common enough hyperbole to describe any singularly refined fruit as heavenly, but not so with the mango. The soft, yielding flesh of a perfect mango is an emblem of purely earthly delight. A fruit with such a sinful reward clearly belongs down on earth with us mortals and not in some pantheon of heavenly fruit.
Every summer in India, the fruit appear in heaps across the country, delivering that taste of indulgence to millions. It’s on the sidewalks in pyramidal arrangements, in grocery stores, on street carts; old ladies sharing a train compartment with you will cut into them with lavish care, and—if you’re lucky—offer you a small piece.
Indians will tell you that they grow the world’s best mangoes. What kind of mango this is, exactly, might be a harder answer to extract. Opinions vary wildly, depending on where you find yourself on the long stretch of the subcontinent. Some prefer the Alphonso, famous in the US for being one of the few Indian mangoes that actually get imported from India during mango season (and known in Maharashtra, where they’re most popular, as hapoos, their wonderfully Marathi name). Others like the Baganapally, or Raspuri. In Delhi they swear by their Langda, while in many parts of the coastal South the myriad mango varieties available include varieties so small they’re simply placed whole into highly spiced curries to give the palate a sweet reprieve.
And everywhere you drive through the desiccated summer landscape, you’ll see the patches of mango orchards, lying low with their oiled leaves and poisoned shade. In the days when I was a child, it was the unabashed occupation of every tyke, middle schooler, or adolescent hooligan to perpetrate frequent raids on nearby mango trees. These things were never planned—you set off down a country road; talking, whiling the time away, and before you know it (just fate I guess), you’re clambering up the friable, lichen-covered branches of a mango tree, swinging a stick at a pendulous bunch of fruit hanging just out of reach.
As you pick, the clear sap from the broken stems gets on your hands and clothes and stains and burns, leaving bleached spots on shirts and backs of necks. Ants and small spiders trapped in the shining trails get rubbed to motes as you dust your hands in the dry red sand, trying to scrub yourself free of the tree’s clinging, pine-scented defenses.
But stolen fruit really is sweeter—Indian schoolkids are (or at least were, in my day), perversely opposed to waiting for mangoes to ripen before going marauding. The prize for all this effort wasn’t a luscious tree-ripened Alphonso or Baganapally, but something inscrutably dark and undented, smelling of resin and acid and summer dust, and when you bit into it, your eyes rolled back into your head from the ascorbic shock, your teeth recoil, and your aching mouth fill with a compensating flood of saliva. But there was nothing like it—to be walking among fragrant, yellowing grasses, painfully peeling away the tough tannic skin with your teeth to get to the crisp, mango-scented flesh within.
These days I’m not sure I could handle a truly unripe mango (let alone with chili powder and salt—another childhood favourite), but the appeal of the hunt is evergreen.
And so it was that my family and I bundled into a convoy of cars and made for the wilds outside Bangalore in search of wild mangoes. My appetite for green mangoes may have left me, but some other things have, mercifully, stayed the same.