by Kaveri Ponnapa
Locked away in my head are not quite faded images of roaming a mango orchard under the cool, deep shade of a spreading canopy, the ground crunchy with a carpet of fallen, half-dried leaves and the friendliest, most inviting trees in the world to climb, their branches curved conveniently into couches and seats. At a certain time of year you could spend a few idle, secret hours in the company of a stolen knife, a pinch of salt, red chilli powder and a hard, sour green mango, legs dangling over the edge of a branch, the whole world suspended while you nibbled at a crunchy, teeth-tingling, tart fruit, the whisper of the breeze in the leaves and countless legends of the ancient mango the only sounds filling your ears.
Mango trees live long, some of them as long as 300 years or more, so it is not surprising that they gather myths around them. A famous legend is of the daughter of the sun who comes to earth, and marries a king who falls deeply in love with her. A sorceress, wildly jealous of the love the king has for the princess, and intent on destroying her, pursues her. To escape the sorceress the princess turns herself into a beautiful lotus. In a frenzy of jealously, the terrible sorceress burns the lotus to ashes. But from the ashes of the lotus, a mango tree grows; when its fruits are ripe, one of them falls at the king’s feet, and bursts open to reveal the Sun Princess, who is restored to her husband. So the mango tree becomes a symbol of love. And its blossoms are believed to be wish fulfilling. Making this favourite spicy-sweet mango pickle brings the bright, fresh scent of sliced green fruit that reminds me of that orchard and sends me wandering, searching for more old stories.
The rustle of time seems to surround any talk of mangoes and pickles: Āmra, possibly the first clear mention of mango, plunges into the depths of history to 1000 BCE and it is possible that the fruit was cultivated since 2000 BCE. A mention of pickle goes spinning down to 2030 BCE, when cucumbers from India were transported to the Tigris Valley, encouraging a tradition of preserving vegetables.
Mangifera indica the king of fruits stunned foreign travellers to India with its aroma and flavour. Hueng Tsang, the Chinese traveller and scholar, is reported to have transported the mango to China. The Portuguese carried it to the New World, and grafted some of the most famous varieties into existence. The Emperor Akbar was inspired to plant an orchard with a lakh of mango trees the ‘Lakh Bagh’ in Darbanga, Bihar, while Abul Fazal, his historian, wrote that ‘the fruit is unrivalled in colour, smell and taste’. But the description I like best of all comes from the 17th century Italian traveller, Niccolao Manucci, who got quite carried away and wrote that the mangoes he had eaten had the taste of “the peaches, plums, pears and apples of Europe”.
Far away from courts and kings, we love the mango in our own homes, orchards and villages. Even before it reaches its full, sweet ripeness our tables are eager to receive the fruit. Hard, green, acidic, its stone undeveloped, it is just perfect for the pickle jar. The blend of spices varies from region to region and every home slices or chops the green fruit differently; but right across the country, over centuries, countless ordinary meals would never have been the same without a helping of mango pickle. In Coorg we have our much-loved Mudi mange para (kaad mange para) made from sun-dried, small wild mangoes that are brined and pickled whole. This pickle of chopped mangoes is quite different, with its beautiful balance of contrasting spices: cooling cumin, warm ginger, fiery black peppercorns and red chillies blended together to make a sharp, sour-sweet pickle that literally makes your senses tingle. I always wait for the tart juice that begins to trickle out once roasted salt has been mixed into the cubes of chopped mango –it smells so good, it’s tempting to eat up a small spoonful or two, under the pretext of tasting. This mango pickle is easily made, and lasts long without the usual inch of oil floating on the top. The flavours are green, crisp and lively with roasted spice notes and a peppery undertow. Its freshness is the kind that makes you think of a mango orchard, and green fruit hanging on the trees, waiting to be plucked and dipped into salt and chilli, and eaten right away.
I’ve lost count of how many times it has come to the rescue when the same curries or vegetables turned up once too often, and boredom threatened the lunch table. Or the times when you just didn’t feel like eating very much, when soft white rice, curd and a helping of mango pickle took the place of a full meal quite easily. Dipping that little piece of mango soaked in spices into the thin, red, hot-sweet paste is a journey into the past: it’s an old combination and yet so enduring. Rice and pickle –people have been eating it for centuries, and it is still going strong on our 21at century tables. Somehow, just the thought connects you to countless generations and times that you have never known. There’s an account I love, of the different foods offered to a wandering minstrel in the 3rd century CE, as he travels across the land, going from house to house singing his songs; one of them is ‘mango pickle and fine rice.’ How can you resist the appeal of such simplicity? Soft rice, sharp green mangoes in a sauce warm with spice, the scent alone enough to whet your appetite? I would happily give up courts, kings and grand feasts for the timeless food of the wandering minstrel.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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