I love all fruits madly, but if I had to select my last supper menu, the mango sits darn near top of the list. However, my love comes with a caveat: it's a long-distance relationship. Unlike my darling brambles and cherries, which flourish in most of the country's foodsheds, the mango is a denizen of the tropics. Within the 50 states, mango country is limited to south Florida, Hawaii and to a lesser extent, southern California.
My kid brother Tim is among the lucky few with a backyard mango supply. In a recent phone call from Key West, he made his sister crazy with envy, singing the praises of his newly harvested Nam Doc Mai, a variety from Thailand.
The thing about a mango (and I think Tim would agree) is that it's more than a fruit; it's an experience.
It was a summer night a dozen or so years ago in Barbados. My old codger friend Gordon was fixing rum cocktails, then he made formal introductions.
"This is Julie," he said, presenting me with a hunk of fruit in a glorious shade of hot pink tinged with orange. "She is the sweetest mango there is," he said. "Go on, taste her."
I placed the slice of fruit between my lips and grabbed at the fluorescent flesh with my teeth, coaxing away the leathery skin. I let the fruit sit on my tongue and closed my eyes, swishing the fruit around the interior of my mouth, as if I were tasting wine.
Seated next to me at the kitchen table, the old man alternately sliced the fruit with his penknife and shared the mango loot. Honeyed nectar stained our cheeks and clothes. Slurps replaced words. Time stood still, and nothing else mattered.
Indian cooking doyenne Madhur Jaffrey details her childhood in India in the 1930s and 40s in her 2006 memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees. In the following scene, excerpted from the prologue, the mango is part of the furniture, on many levels:
"My grandfather had built his house in what was a thriving orchard of jujubes, mulberries, tamarinds and mangoes. His numerous grandchildren, like hungry flocks of birds, attacked the mangoes while they were still green and sour. As grown-ups snored through the hot afternoon in rooms cooled with wetted, sweet-smelling vetiver curtains, the unsupervised children were on every branch of every mango tree, armed with a ground mixture of salt, pepper, red chilies and roasted cumin. The older children, on the higher branches, peeled and sliced the mangoes with penknives and passed the slices down to the smaller fry on the lower branches. We would dip the slices into our spice mixture and eat, our tingling mouths telling us that we had ceased to be babies."
If that doesn't inspire passion for a taste of mango, nothing will...
Cultivated and revered in India since at least 2,000 BC, the mango's exact point of origin is likely to encompass Bangladesh and Burma to the east, according to many historians.
For millennia, the mango has been a vital cultural and religious symbol in India. Traveling Buddhist monks - the likely mango Johnny Appleseeds throughout eastern Asia - noted that the Buddha (who taught primarily in northeastern India) was gifted a mango grove in 500 BC as a place for meditation.
The mango tree worked its way into the friezes of a Buddhist stupa (a holy site) built in Bharhut, India in 100 BC.
The mango is a symbol of love in Vedic mythology. Surya Bai, the daughter of the sun, became a golden lotus so she could escape an evil sorceress. The King fell in love with the lotus, so the sorceress burnt the flower into ashes. The ashes transformed into a mango tree, from which Surya appears, and as the story goes, the two lived happily ever after.
The Portuguese (from their outpost in Goa, on India's west coast ) brought the mango to Africa in the 16th century, and then on to Brazil in the 18th century, around the same time it arrived in Barbados, Jamaica and other parts of the West Indies. It would be another hundred years - probably late 1800s - before the mango would debut in Florida, Hawaii and southern California.
Botanically, we're talking about Mangifera indica, a member of the cashew family (Anacardiaceae), which interestingly makes it related to the pistachio as well as the highly irritant backyard plants better known as poison ivy and poison sumac.
There are hundreds of cultivars thriving in only the warmest spots around the world, from Barbados to Brazil, Haiti to Hawaii. The top three mango producing countries are India, China and Thailand.
The bulk of US mango imports come from Mexico, the balance coming from Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Guatemala and Haiti. (See Environmental Impact section below about Fair Trade mangos from Haiti.)
The mango is a fruit of summer, regardless where it grows. In India, mango season is officially recognized as 100 days long, from late March through June.
When International Mango Festival goers gather in south Florida next month, the local mango season will be in full swing; typically it runs from late May or early June until September.
Conventional mangos rank #44 on the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a relatively low pesticide load that earned a spot on the "Clean Fifteen" list.
But as mentioned earlier, the commercial mango in American supermarkets is an import item, so it comes with a heavier carbon footprint associated with shipping. It's also subject to USDA regulations requiring pest control, either through a hot water treatment or radiation. The FDA requires all irradiated mangos to be labeled, something to watch for in the produce section.
Since 2010, Whole Foods Market, along with NGO partners Fair Trade USA and Technoserve, has offered certified Fair Trade mangos from Haiti. According to a press release, "Whole Foods Market is the sole buyer of Fair Trade Certified mangos and purchases the fruit from small Haitian growers, sometimes buying from a family with just one tree." WFM spokesperson Liz Burkhart told me that stores still have supplies of the Francique mango, which season is running later than usual (typically it lasts from May to early June). The stores are selling a mix of both organic and conventional mangos, says Burkhart.
Like the plum, cherry and olive, the mango is a drupe - a fleshy fruit with a thin skin and a pit (which contains the seed). Ranging in size from four ounces to two pounds, the mango also varies in shape, from big and bulbous to slender and kidney-esque. They come in various shades of red, orange, yellow and green, and color is no indicator of ripeness.
You want the skin to be leathery smooth (like a purse) not leathery wrinkled (like someone who's spent too much time in the sun). Black spots are okay, likely the result of sap leaking from the stem, but do make sure there's nothing squishy or moldy. I've also noticed that as mangos age, the skin begins to recede. Take a pass on a mango that smells sour rather than sweet (mangos do ferment as they age).
A ripe and ready-to-eat mango will yield to thumb pressure, and it should smell fragrant.
If you're looking for a source of vitamin A and its antioxidant companion betacarotene, you're in the right place. The mango is also rich in vitamin C and a respectable source of fiber as well as potassium - in fact, it actually beats the banana in the potassium contest.
The mango has been an important remedy in ayurvedic and other traditional schools of medicine. The bark, gum, leaves, pit and flower have been used for thousands of years to treat sundry ailments, from diarhhea to rheumatism, asthma to scabies. A paper published in 2010 in the Pharmacognosy Review highlights various studies on the potential antioxidative effects of the fruit, the potential for treating diabetes with the leaves and bark and showing great promise as a "phytomedicine." The authors recommend that "more clinical trials be conducted to support its therapeutic use."
I predict more news to emerge on the magic of mangiferin, a compound found in the mango with potential antiviral antimicrobial and gastro-protective benefits.
A note of caution: Keep in mind that the mango is related to poison ivy and poison sumac, and that the fruit, particularly with skin attached, may cause contact dermatitis, or worse. The skin of the fruit contains urushiol, a compound that can cause a rash, swelling of the lips or anaphylaxis. Seek medical attention if you experience a reaction after eating mango.
If you've never had the pleasure, start by eating a mango as is, standing over the sink, or in the bathtub. But first thing's first: Learning how to properly cut a mango is essential to maximizing mango euphoria.
Do not refrigerate. Keep at room temperature. If you only want to eat half a mango, cut and score the remaining half, remove from the skin and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a few days.
You can also purée scored mango, then freeze for later.
Speaking of mango purée, this is one of the easiest ways to get your mango on. Blend with a banana, berries, plain yogurt and fresh mint (or any combination of these) to make a killer smoothie or lassi.
I've shared a loose-leaf template for a mango salsa that can be used infinite ways - atop rice or your favorite grain, alongside grilled fish, shrimp or chicken, on a chip-and-dip platter or on a bed of greens.
1 ripe mango, cut and scored into dice (see video how-to above)
Place diced mango into a medium mixing bowl, then add any or all of the following:
1 small red onion, peeled and diced
½ red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
½ jalapeno chile pepper, seeded and diced, or your favorite ground chile pepper
¼ to ½ cup cilantro leaves, washed and roughly chopped
Juice of ½ lime
Unsalted roasted peanuts
Stir to mix well, and taste for salt, acid and heat, and adjust accordingly. Best eaten day of serving.