Maturing taste in food is one of the bittersweet rites of becoming an adult. Take fruit for example. Apples, bananas, and oranges that once flanked PB&J sandwiches in a Flintstone lunch box give way to couscous laced with papaya coulis.
To encounter an exotic fruit like a mango is to resign the McIntosh apples of youth to the dustbin of memory lane.
Westerners whose first introduction to mangoes is Southeast Asian entres may not realize that it is one of the world's most popular fruits. But even though it often sits ignored in US supermarkets, the mango is beginning to make inroads to the American palate.
From sorbets to smoothies, soups to salads, mangoes give ordinary dishes a robust, tropical flavor. Simply sprinkled with lime juice, a ripe mango with its soft, custardlike consistency can be savored by the spoonful.
The mango tree is native to the hot, humid climate of India, where it was first cultivated more than 4,000 years ago. Mangoes probably owe their romantic aura to Indian Vedic literature, which depicted the fruit as the transformation of Prajapati, lord of procreation.
Though the benchmark cultivar remains the Indian Alphonso, the mango has been planted throughout the tropics, with over 2,500 varieties.
Most Westerners, however, haven't sampled the sweeter and spicier Southeast Asian varieties. Mangoes eaten in the United States are generally grown in Florida or imported from Caribbean groves.
Ever since a "Seinfeld" episode touted the mango's amorous powers, the fruit has surged in public awareness. For all its mystique, though, mango - like papaya and pomegranate - is still more adored than eaten.
To the unacquainted, mango can be overpowering. Its melon-meets-citrus flavor is at first bite comfortably similar to a peach. But a resinous edge soon transforms the luscious taste into a more complex arrangement.
Its fragrance, too, is hardly common. The honey-citrus scent has notes of, well, kerosene, which it actually contains. A unique and sometimes disconcerting mix to some, but isn't that why we dare buy exotic fruit?
Intrepid fruit buyers can sample mango throughout the year at most grocery stores, but peak season is in June.
Once picked, mangoes don't ripen as well as, say, a banana, but if its green skin takes on reddish and yellow hues, and it is slightly soft when gently pressed, it's ripe. Green fruit can be OK, but avoid those with a grayish tinge, as they will never ripen properly.
Cutting the fruit can be a challenge. Upon hitting the large stone with their knives, first-time cutters are apt to paraphrase the old Wendy's ad: "Where's the fruit?" One sure method is to slice the mango lengthwise along its large seed, score the flesh with diagonal cuts, and invert the skin. It can then be easily scooped out with a spoon. (See photo above.)
The mango's versatility lends itself to experimentation - and dozens of alternatives to lemonade. Dust off the juicer and add mangoes with other fruit to a dollop of yogurt and some ice. No matter how you slice it, mango is good to the core.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society