Friday, April 12, 2013

Mangoes Arrive!

Here they are - slowly ripening on trees, piled high on pavements, stacked attractively in fruit shops - the first mangoes of the year.  A few weeks ago, green mangoes made their appearance.  These are sold for pickles and chutneys which seem almost essential with every meal given our jaded summer appetites.  The early windfall mangoes - tiny little things without any seeds have a very different flavour from the big green ones.  They are earthy and smoky, more like berries than fruit.  They are mixed with a few spices (largely chilly and salt) and made into a fresh pickle eaten with rice or rotis.

This year, so far, we have tasted three different kinds of mango pickles already - one with whole baby mangoes from north Karnataka, another with freshly sliced raw mangoes from an orchard in Maharashtra (lots of some unidentifiable Maharashtrian masala and the taste of fresh, raw mango), a third golden yellow (laced with ground mustard and chilly) from Uttar Pradesh.  Also, my own strange experiments, of mangoes cooked with jaggery and whole spices (not very successful but not dreadful either)!  Very soon will begin my next phase of cooking with unripe mangoes - green mango rice with hints of fresh coriander and coconut, sweet and sour green mango chutney and shredded mango salad with peanuts.

Tiny, flattened dried mangoes
As for the ripe mangoes, early varieties from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and our own state of Karnataka are slowly trickling in.  Apart from buying at regular shops or pavements, each year I visit Maharashtra Mandal, where a lady rents some rooms to store and sell Ratnagiri mangoes.  This year was no different and last week I trundled up to this inconspicuous building in the middle of the crowded lanes of Gandhinagar.

Maharashtra Mandal stands at a corner, apparently quiet but buzzing with frenetic activity deep inside the 'mango rooms'.  Rows of crates are stacked from floor to ceiling in the inner rooms; these are periodically dragged out when customers arrive.  The crates are expertly flipped open, the contents revealed to customers (each of whom has a precise set of requirements).

The customers here are invariably aggressive and extremely particular about each piece of mango being the very best - as if they were buying bullions and not fruit.  The quality of a mango is determined by the size and external appearance and the fact that it must be blemishless, much like models in fashion parades.  This is quite amusing to watch.  Customers are also invariably in a hurry.  These various requirements, somewhat contradictory in nature, means that one person rapidly empties out a crate; mangoes are selected or rejected, prices are discussed and some bargaining attempted.  Other crates are opened up, the selected mangoes are counted and repacked.  Other customers must wait their turn to follow the same procedure.  I of course dispense with the haggling and the close scans of each piece.  I have been visiting this place for years and the lady knows the kind of price range and mangoes I ask for (I generally prefer small and ripe ones whereas most people like large and semi-ripe mangoes).  I also don't mind blemishes for most of them seem to be skin deep.  This considerably speeds up my mango buying and makes place for the next customer.

This is not to say that mango buying occurs one person at a time.  There are two or three parallel processes occurring, the main constraints being floor space and man power.  We all tread carefully around the mango piles, minimize out footprints, prefer to ram into each other rather than bump into any of the precious the mangoes (we would probably have to buy the squashed ones).  It is all rather fun as long as one is not impatient.  Voices yell "450 - 400"  "No, this is 600," much like a stock market and they refer to bulk prices based on the mango sizes (nothing is weighed here, it is sold by the dozen).

Mango selection
What is so special about these mangoes?  It's not the price, which initially tends to be higher than market rates and slowly drops as the season proceeds.  It is the fact that these mangoes are plucked from orchards, immediately packed in crates and sent to this building.  Here they lie ripening slowly and naturally in straw; their flavour and aroma intensifying gradually as days go by (they may take a few days to a few weeks to completely ripen).  These naturally ripened mangoes taste much better than the chemically ripened ones.  Their flavour is more intense, there are no unripe, sour or over-ripe patches.

Mangoes ripening in straw
This particular variety crinkles and turns a deep, orangey-yellow when ripe.  The mangoes fill my house with an enticing smell and part of the joy is to pick them out of the crate and select the ripest of the lot.  They are uniformly exceedingly delicious - sweet and flavourful with very little fibre; the only danger is the tendency to over-indulge!  

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