Connoisseurs clamor for this sweetest of mangoes

India's Alphonso variety, the fruit of legends, has inspired odes and incited war.

The verses of Sanskrit literature and the memoirs of kings are full of odes to it. And legend says the Portuguese once fought a war over it. Eat one in summer, and you will understand. The Alphonso - or King - mango is the sweetest, coolest, tangiest of mangoes.

At the season's start in April, Indians clamoring for their share of this fabled fruit can push the price of Alphonsos up to $30 a dozen. For many, that's a week's wage. But this year, a national transport strike and reduced exports to the troubled Middle East, where there is usually a huge demand for Alphonsos, has dropped prices to as low as $4 a dozen.

"It's great ... normally we can only eat mangoes once or twice a season, but this year they are so cheap," beams Trilok Lal, a restaurant manager in New Delhi.

Inside Bombay's Crawford Market - a colonial structure built by Rudyard Kipling's father and a major mango-trading center - sellers banter their way through thinning profits. "Mine are the real thing, sun ripened and sweet," says one as he weighs the golden fruit with red blush in his palm. "Eat one and go straight to heaven."

Their boasts are ignored by the buyers, almost all women, who sniff delicately at the mangoes to ascertain their sweetness and ripeness. "I have to be careful ... it pains me to cut open a bad one," says Shakuntala Pradhan, a housewife. "My husband scolds me for buying so many." This year, shoppers have to be especially cautious. Unseasonably early rains along India's western Malabar coast, where Alphonsos are mostly grown, have tainted some of the crop.

Indians generally think of the mango as the fruit of the people - the vernacular for mangos is aam, meaning common. India cultivates more than 1,000 varieties, and brings in more than half of the world's mango harvest. The Alphonso, however, is an unattainable delicacy for many Indians.

"Such things are not in my destiny ... it's OK for car-wallahs (the relatively few people rich enough to afford cars), but how can I think about Alphonsos when I can barely get by?" laments Bajrangi Dubey, a cigarette vendor.

Debating why Alphonsos cost so much is a passionate pastime. Domestic retailers claim the export of Alphonsos diminishes local supply. Exporters argue local farming is inefficient and that Alphonsos are overpriced even before they reach the dock. But while overpriced onions or potatoes can cause riots in India, a mango season of just eight to 10 weeks ensures there is no time for people to get restive.

Along treacherous city streets, children hurl stones into mango trees, aiming at fruit that lies tantalizingly out of reach. But the owners who chase them away often do so half-heartedly, fondly recalling their own youthful mango heists.

Wild mango forests can still be found near Assam in the northeast, where the fruit originated. The mango tree, also known as the kalpavriksh, or wish-granting tree, has an honored place in the Indian imagination. Romances have blossomed beneath its shady fragrance and the poet Kalidasa likens the blooms of the mango flower to the darts of Manmatha, the Hindu god of love. Fragrant mango leaves form an integral part of Hindu rituals and religious ceremonies.

India's many invaders were also susceptible to the lure of Alphonsos. Alexander the Great quickly became a fan, and the Portuguese carried Alphonsos and other mangos off to their Latin American territories. Muslim invaders developed such a taste for them that, Indians joke, that the only thing keeping oil flowing into India is the flow of Alphonsos to the Middle East.

British colonialists were more ambivalent. They savored the mango's taste, but frowned at the tendency of its juice to run down fingers onto shirt fronts. Still, the era's gossips whispered about ladies who devoured vast quantities in their bathrooms.

Indelible saffron stains led the British to invent special cutlery for eating mangoes, an affront to many Indians. "There are still certain joys in this drab world of ours, among them the mango, but refinement can only nullify them.... The mango is not a fruit that lends itself to social occasions ... there is only one way to eat it, to bite the mango in its prime, suck its potent juices, to devour its flesh with eager relish," wrote naturalist M. Krishnan in his essay "Mangoes in Season."

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