On Gardening: Mango

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 08:53:00 AM

When I read in the Cal Alumni Association magazine, California, that eating locally is not necessarily an admirable thing to do, I could not suppress a sigh of relief. My feeling that local produce is overpriced also received a glow of vindication when a neighbor showed up with a bag of Roma tomatoes, 11 of them for 50 cents, from a market near Sacramento where all produce, she says, is practically given away, making the journey financially worthwhile. These tomatoes even had flavor, something that tomatoes from local farmer’s markets lack. Who knows where Berkeley’s tomatoes come from? Certainly not Berkeley. 

I felt relief because I have a passion for tropical fruits, and I know that since these do not grow in Berkeley, they must come from Central and South America. Especially do I love to eat mangoes in February. There is something about a mango that makes me thankful I live here, unlike those poor devils on the East Coast. Besides, the ground is too cold and wet in February to work on my mundane potatoes, carrots and turnips. Even though the sky shows increasing amounts of blue, and snow on the ground turns out to be plum blossom, one might as well continue for a while to dream of warmer climes. 

Mangoes are fruits beyond royal, since the mango tree, Mangifera indica, is sacred. The well-known “paisley” shape is thought to represent the seed of the mango, if not the mango itself. This shape is constantly featured in the ancient arts of India, frequently framing the seated Buddha in paintings and sculptures, and the fruit is an important part of Indian festivities. Indeed the mango is native to tropical India and perhaps Burma, is widely cultivated now throughout the tropics and can be grown in areas slightly less tropical, such as Florida. I was surprised to see it listed at all in Sunset’s Western Garden Book. Only in the most sheltered parts of southern California can it be grown, and even there it does not do well. Where it belongs it bears nobly for 40 years. It is usually propagated vegetatively, to avoid the stringy flesh of fruits of less certain provenance. Cashews and pistachios belong to the same family, Anacardiaceae. 

Mangoes are nutritionally valuable, containing huge amounts of vitamin A and measurable amounts of vitamin C, just the stuff for winter. The mango is best eaten by peeling it with a potato peeler and biting into the delicious juicy orange flesh while bending over the kitchen sink. More fastidiously, slices can be detached with a sharp knife around the large seed, which still begs to be slurped.  

Mangoes make delicious juices, add value to fruit salads, and made a fortune for Major Grey’s mango chutney. Whether Major Grey existed is uncertain. Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, lent his name to the tea flavored with oil of bergamot (derived from a variety of citrus). He has no apparent connection to chutney. His sons, Charles and Henry, were Victorian pukka sahibs but seem not to have been in India. Both Poonjiaji Spices Ltd. and Cross & Blackwell claim an exclusive relationship with Major Grey. There is no doubt the tag was and is brilliantly successful in capturing the Western market, and the Major’s scarlet pimpernel aura has not hurt sales a whit. Patak’s product is very good, available locally. India, with its abundance of sweet fresh tropical fruits, has less need of the sweet pickles, relishes and chutneys enjoyed in the West. India’s condiments tend to be sharp and bracing, salty, sour. Often they are made at home, refreshing rather than cloying. Vik’s does a salty pickle that gives a piquant jolt.  

As for paisley, in the 19th century, designs on imported textiles from India and Kashmir were copied in Europe. The looms of Paisley, Scotland, were the most advanced, although unable to reproduce the complexity and refinement of the originals. Indian shawls still drape the most beautifully and look the most gorgeous. 

Mangoes are found in many of Berkeley’s produce stores. Some are large, green, with rosy patches. Others are small and butter-yellow. There is no difference in flavor or texture. Monisha Bharadwaj in The Indian Spice Kitchen gives recipes with mango powder (also found locally), which is made from unripe fruits, sliced and sun-dried, and used as a tangy flavoring in various ways. 

The following recipe is a tropical offering whose richness helps to temper the treacherous winds of spring. First, choose whole spices such as coriander, cloves, black mustard seeds, green cardamom and pieces of cinnamon. Dry-toast these in a heavy pan, grind them, and set aside. Heat oil in another pan and stir-fry chunks of onion, eggplant and chili. Choose a chili as hot as is tolerable, or omit entirely. Sprinkle in the spices, stir briefly, add chopped canned tomatoes and their juice, a little water, and sea salt crystals. Simmer with lid on for about 10 minutes. Stir in a spoonful of almond butter. The sauce will be thick. Let it rest, lid on, heat off. In a small saucepan, heat a mixture of double cream and milk until little bubbles form around the edges. Stir this into the sauce to thin and enrich it. Coconut milk or cream is a fine alternative and is easy to make from dried coconut. Ground cashews can be substituted for almonds. Such changes subtly alter the finished dish. The second version is softer, sweeter, less rich. 

This is not an authentic Indian curry. Reay Tannahill might call it a parody. In her scholarly yet readable Foods in History she expresses her enthusiasm for the freshness and variety of Indian cooking. I share her enthusiasm. She considers the vegetarian cooking of south India to be one of the world’s distinguished cuisines. This is not faint praise. The virtues of this recipe are speed and simplicity, and really, both versions are delicious. Serve them with rice or chapattis, a dal or yogurt, and a big dollop of Major Grey’s. After all, that is not genuine either.