Monday, June 13, 2005

Ek Aam Post

At last found good Alphonso mangoes in Singapore. Last year all I could find were Pakistani and Thai mangoes. The Indian mangoes sold at Mustafa were not worth the effort I would put in, to lug them home!!

Mango... the absolute monarch among fruits. I love mangoes with the passion of a connoisseur. But then I descend from a line of great mango lovers. As a kid, every single summer vacation was spent in Kerala, in the company of a Grandfather who is a mango enthusiast and had planted several varieties of them in his orchard. Our morning walks were peppered with him pointing at various mango trees and rattling off their names... Neelam, Jehangir, Mundappa, Malgova,... their taste (sweet, bitter, very sweet...), uses(cooking, pickles, to be eaten ripe...) and so on. My Grandma would salt away prodigious amounts of small, raw mangoes in giant earthen pots (excellent for a five year old to play-act Aladdin and 40 thieves in!) and my mom makes the best mango based dishes in the whole world.

The yearly summer trips to Kerala were filled with episodes of heat boil breakouts due to the unchecked, unlimited consumption of mangoes. Every afternoon Sis and Kanchana akka and I would go tramping around the mango orchard, knife and a potent mixture of salt and red chilli powder in hand, in search of that perfect, half-ripe mango that would then be plucked, given a cursory wash in the nearby pond, cut up, dipped in the spicy mixture we had brought along and then eaten under the cool shade of the mango tree as we sat and argued or told long tales. My favorite was the humble Mundappa which is also the preferred choice for cooking mango dishes, pickling and salting away. There is also the Neelam which yields some of the sweetest mangoes but usually harbors beetles inside, so a mango that looks perfect from the outside is black on the inside. The Malgova or Jehangir are best eaten ripe. And then there are my mom's favorite, the red bottomed mangoes, their name escapes me but not the taste and the fun we used to have... first stealing them from the neighbour's courtyard and then pressing them in our hands till they were soft. We would then bite off the top and suck out the pulp... the golden juice would flow down our chins and hands onto our feet and clothes and our faces would be the picture of ultimate delight.

Every year, dad would order huge wooden crates filled with the divine Ratnagiri Hapus (Alphonso Mangoes). They would arrive littering our kitchen with hay and filling it up with the overpowering aroma so typical of a good Hapus. Sis and I would sit and dip our hands in the rustling hay to find the warm mangoes nestling in between. And for days to follow we would gorge ourselves on ripe mangoes and all kinds of mango dishes... mango milkshakes, aamras, aamrakhand... Throughout the day I would keep slipping into the kitchen to pick out a ripe Hapus, judging it by its wrinkled yellow skin. I would then pare off the skin and dig my teeth greedily into the succulent flesh to savour the indescribable taste of the Hapus. A trip to the fruit and vegetable market during mango season meant getting lost among yellow, fragrant mounds of all kinds of mangoes from all corners of India... Langda, Pairi, Totapuri, Banganapalli, Rajapuri, Dashehari, Chuasa...

After I left Bombay and my childhood home, there have been numerous difficult mornings, when I have woken up with the dull ache of homesickness in my heart and the taste of hot rice kanji (rice porridge) and salted mangoes on my tongue. I can still smell the pungent aroma of mango aviyal (coconut based preparation with myraid vegetables and mangoes) and distinctly remember the taste of mango chutney, the various mango pickles (mango thokku, kannimanga, simple home made mango pickles...), mango umman (which is a fiery hot mango dish my mom makes and which tastes heavenly with dosas) and uppumanga (salted raw mangoes). As I write this my mouth is filled with the sharp ache of longing and my mind is awash with precious childhood memories.

There really is nothing 'aam' about the mangoes... the most ordinary among them is capable of providing a royal treat!