Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mango Season

June is when the monsoon arrives along the Kerala coast, kids get vacation breaks, families head for the hills or their ancestral villages, and the mangos are ripe in Pune. The "King of Fruit" dominates the fruit stands for an all-too-short month or two from late May into July with dozens of varieties, shapes and sizes to please every palate. India just wouldn't be the same without them.

Every region has its favorite variety and there is much debate about which is best. Pune is in the heart of "mango country" with the variety of choice here being the Afus or Alfonso. At our ashram we have about a dozen trees evenly split between these and the local Pyree variety. Much like avacados, mangos don't grow true from seed and the best varieties are grafted onto local root stock, making it common to find a wide array of ungrafted, less favored trees in the countryside. Although not as tasty, they are fine for cooking, jams and pickle.

Last week we harvested this year's crop and now have hundreds of mangos ripening in beds of straw with one of our offices now serving as a ripening room. As you can imagine, mango is on the menu every day. Laxmi has been preparing a delicious mango soup for lunch. She cooks the mangos in a pot of mango juice, adding spices and seasoning to give the final product, served hot, both a sweet and savory flavor. Anand, our cook has a delightful way of cutting off the top of each mango and extracting the seed, leaving the most of the fruit inside to be eaten with a spoon. It's easy to eat three or four of these at a sitting.

Indians have a love affair with mangos and I can see why. At the market, you will easily find half a dozen varieties on display, the varieties changing as the season progresses. It's heresy to contest the supremecy of the Afus, but I've grown fond of some of the other varieties too. I especially like the Kesar, a small, green fruit with an orange flesh similar to the Alphonso. The big, yellow mangos like the Badami, which are usually cheaper, are juicy but not as flavorful, in my opinion, but they are very good for shakes and smoothies. The same goes for the Totapuri. The variety typically found in American markets comes from Latin America and is OK but its flavor is less intense than the mangos found in India. The fruit here is sweeter here and more aromatic, though I've heard a few Westerners say they can be too sweet. Imagine.

I remember some years ago flying into Delhi from Mumbai in late May. As I was awaiting my luggage, I watched box after box of mangos moving along the bbaggage carousel. Half those flying were bringing home mangos for friends and family. Last Wednesday I brought bags of them to Mumbai for Sangha friends at a Gita class. It's just what you do.

I love mangos but I'd like to mention a couple of other wonderful fruits that ripen about now. One is the chickoo, a fruit very similar in shape and color to the kiwi but with a brown flesh that I can best describe as tasting something like a combination of a date and a pear. I really like them although Sadhana Devi doesn't. There is no accounting for taste. Chickoo shakes are fantastic and you can get a really tasty chickoo ice cream at "Naturals", arguably the best ice cream chain in the world. They make, on site, all natural ingredient ice cream, using fruits in season. Really! I had jalum berry ice cream the last time I stopped by one of their shops. Some of the shops will even pack their tubs, for an extra charge, in dry ice so the ice cream won't melt by the time you get it home. As far as I know, Naturals only has shops in Maharashtra but I predict it won't be long before they are countrywide.

Another fruit now in season is the lichi. This is a red, round, spikey fruit about one inch in diameter. The flesh is similar in texture to a peeled grape but the taste is unique. Again, I like them but others don't. I think the slippery texture of the flesh puts some people off. Oh well, to each his own. I mentioned jamun berries as an ice cream flavor but they can also be eaten fresh though the taste is a bit astringent. We have a couple of these trees at the community and when made into a cold jamun-ade, they are fantastic. And, let me tell you about the grapes--some of the very best grapes are found here, much better than in the USA.

 Two other fruits which some rave about but leave me unmoved are the sitaphal and the jackfruit. Sitaphals are also known as custard apples and they have a pleasant, very mild taste. The problem with them is that they are a bit of a hassle to eat with too many seeds. As for jackfruit, we have a huge tree at the Pune community giving dozens of immense fruits, some weighing almost twenty pounds. The fruit is sickly sweet with a very unique flavor. It's a love or hate thing with jackfruit. Our cooks fix it into all sorts of dishes and I like it better that way. In fact, some say it can be used as a vegetarian substitute for beef because it looks just like it when cooked.

Soon the mango season will pass and we'll have to wait another year for their return. In Pune we are lucky because of the great variety of fresh produce grown locally but it's not like in America where you can get imports throughout the year. In India, fruits and vegetables are available by season, which perhaps makes them more appreciated when their time comes.

 Happy mango season.