The best mangoes are meaty, soft like butter, and so luscious that the juice drips down your wrists when you bite into one. Their flesh is tender and perfectly chewy, making the next bite more coveted than the last. And while these are the best kinds of mangoes, I would eat any one I’m given. I like to consider myself a more experienced mango eater—those who aren’t leave the seed untouched, sucking all of the juice out from the fruit around the seed rather than sucking the seed itself.
The first box of mangoes my family comes across each year signifies the first glimmers of summer. And that first juicy bite after a long winter? It’s sweet, with the distinct taste of ripe fruit. When I bite into it, it’s like I’m biting into the brightest tropical flavored Skittle, albeit with a much fresher flavor. It’s juicy and meaty, like the flesh of a young coconut, but usually a little fibrous, especially at the beginning of the season.
Mango boxes arrive at our house almost weekly starting at the end of March through the middle of August. As the days begin to get longer, we increase our visits to the local desi store, hoping to see the first cartons arrive. In those first days in March, we start seeing a box here or there, but we always wait until we catch sight of that white box with magenta lettering labeled Marathon Mangoes—those are, hands down, the best ones. Truth be told, the mangoes that come out those first couple of weeks are not as good as the ones found during their June peak, but usually, my family is so pleased to have mangoes that we eat them with gusto nevertheless.
Throughout the season, the sweet aroma of the fruit welcomes me as soon as I walk into the kitchen, directing my attention to the box nestled on one of the fruit shelves in our home (yes, this South Asian family has fruit shelves, plural). Even today, whenever I take a bite of a succulent mango, it transports me to my childhood summers, where we would sit around the table as a family savoring mango after mango, always after lunch on a Sunday and many times at night, as our after-dinner treat. To me, mango season always feels like an extended ceremony: the ritual of bringing home the weekly box of mangoes, my mom cutting them for all of us to enjoy, often in silence—that hush that happens when you’re eating something that good—but always together. Our eyes focused on the plate in front of us, we nod at each other in agreement that this is bliss.
Cutting a mango in slices is easier than in cubes, so in my family, that’s usually how we eat them. We treat eating mangoes like a competition—the person who leaves the skin with the least amount of fruit is the winner, and those who leave fruit behind will likely find my dad combing through the discarded peels to make sure every last morsel is eaten.
However, my family’s favorite way of eating mangoes is one you would never guess. When the mangoes are at their peak—very juicy, with a jelly-like consistency—we cube them and add them to buttered toast. My first memories of having breakfast on Sundays, the only day my dad didn’t work, was of him allowing my sisters and I to drink chai (from a bowl, just like him) and eat mango on toast, or toast keri in Gujurati. My paternal grandmother is the one who first started eating mangoes like this—she was known for her unusual food combinations like cereal in her daal and fruit doused in milk. But she got it right with mango on toast: the union of crunchy toast, salty butter, and sweet mango is so irresistible that everyone in the family started following suit. To me, this will always be the superior way of eating a mango.
During one particular visit to India, I realized that mangoes are special to other South Asian families, not just my immediate one. I can recall my family reaching my aunt and uncle’s house in the early hours of the morning, and as we arrived, my aunt cut up mangoes and set the table so that we could enjoy a famed Alphonso mango at least once on our trip, even if it was three o’clock in the morning. She had saved the last couple of Alphonsos since the season had ended earlier that week, hoping they would last until we arrived. Despite being bleary-eyed and jetlagged, my family and I ate those last few mangoes of the season with gratitude.
That was the first Alphonso I had ever eaten; we’re not lucky enough to find them too often here in America. Instead, Haden, Kent, and Champagne mangoes are some of the more common varieties. Haden and Kent mangoes have strong floral notes and a less fibrous consistency, and Champagne mangoes are almost reminiscent of a sweet vanilla cream. The Alphonso mango, on the other hand, is more syrupy, with a consistency that’s smooth like butter—you can easily eat them with a spoon. The flesh is a deep orange color, almost like bloomed saffron, and it has a milder taste than Kent mangoes. The varieties available to us here in the U.S., while still delicious, can’t beat that of the Alphonso mango.
While I probably can’t recount the exact taste of those particular Alphonso mangoes in Mumbai all those years ago, I will forever cherish the memory of eating that last mango of the season. As an eight year-old, I didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about, but I knew my aunt had gone through the trouble of saving the last mangoes for us. Part of the reason mangoes feel so special to my family is knowing we can’t get them year-round. When mango season is nearing its end, we make some into ras, or mango pulp, to enjoy in the peak of winter—when all we want is warm weather and mango season, but all we see is snow and the fog of our breath. South Asians have found ways to use mango in a variety of forms, from pickled mango to mango chutney. We have even found a number of uses for the raw versions of this fruit; raw mangoes are to Indian cuisine as green papaya is to Thai cuisine. We use them as an addition to salads, to add tartness to chutneys, and for some zing in bhel, a street food concoction made of puffed rice, fried puris, raw onion, potatoes, tamarind chutney, spicy green cilantro chutney, and topped with more cilantro and raw mango cubes. Or, if you’re like me, you can enjoy it simply cut up and eat it on its own, sometimes sprinkled with lime juice and chili powder.
So, to my dear mangoes, thank you. Your distinct flavor brings me back to my childhood home and to sweet, sweet summertime. I’ll always look forward to seeing that first box in the kitchen every summer and to that initial bite after a long winter—the juicy, fruity, and succulent experience stays with me throughout the entire year. And for me, that first bite is more than just a sweet treat; it’s the start of summer, warmer months, longer days, and box after box of sweet, luscious mangoes.
Tejal Thakkar July 19, 2022 at 02:45AM