Fruit of the tropics
Mangoes are the ultimate tropical fruit — when perfectly ripe they’re juicy and lush with a fragrant sultry smell that conjures steaming summer weather, holidays and beaches. Their flesh can be anything from soft, buttery and silky to slightly tangy and fibrous. When green their sour sweet tang is a perfect match for scorching chilli and acidic limes, a mouth puckering combination that makes me long for hot tropical nights.
Native to south Asia and the national fruit of India, with which it has deep cultural and religious ties, mangoes are a stone fruit that are deeply embedded in Asian cuisine. The trees, an evergreen from the anacardiaceae family, are fast growing and self pollinating with dense foliage providing a beautiful canopy and excellent shade, a useful attribute for a tree from the sunny tropics.
Mango trees are easy to grow. Both drought hardy and happy with heavy rainfall, they are tolerant of most temperatures but will only flower and bear fruit when they are in frost-free and warm climates. In Australia the first mangoes of the season appear in the NT and WA as early as September and then trickle down the country, ripening in northern NSW in January. The season lasts until April, but they are best in the summer months. Mangoes start green and ripen into various shades from pale yellow to golden orange and red depending on the variety. They are generally harvested when fully mature but still firm to ripen off the tree, with smell and touch rather than colour being the best indication of ripeness.
The first cultivated mango in Australia and still most wildly grown is the Kensington pride, also known as the Bowen mango from the town of the same name in Queensland where it was first discovered (to celebrate this you can visit the Big Mango on the Bruce Highway just south of Bowen). The fruit is quite large and sweet with flesh that can become dark golden. Two of the other most widely cultivated mangoes in Australia are the calypso and the oddly robot-like named R2E2. Both have been bred to be less fibrous with a longer shelf life; in my mind this has been at the expense of flavour as I find them to be slightly insipid.
There are many other species of mango trees, about half of which are edible, that provide a fruit whose flavours range far more than the more common homogenous types found in Australia. A Malaysian variety called the binjai has yellow white flesh with a slightly sour and acidic flavour and a smell like a less pungent durian. Plum mangoes or maprang, found in Thailand, are a small fruit that looks like a baby mango with plum textured flesh. These are eaten whole, with skin and with the bright purple slightly bitter seed. Asia is the best place to see and explore the myriad of possibilities for mangoes as they have many cultivators that they utilise, from green to very ripe.
Among the tree
The useful nature of the mango tree provides us with much more than just a tasty fruit. The leaves are used to make decorative garlands and younger leaves along with shoots can be eaten raw. Mango kernels and seeds can be boiled and eaten, ground into flour and used to make a medicinal paste. A powder made from sun-dried green mangoes called amchuur is used like a spice to add sour notes to curries and as a tenderising agent for meat. The wood, too, is being utilised more and more as it’s an excellent sustainable choice for making furniture. And in an interesting Australian first, apparently we have more than one winery specialising in wines made from mangoes.
One of my many favourite Sri Lankan dishes is made with green mangoes; the fruit is cut into pieces with the seed left in and cooked into a slightly sweet and sour aromatic curry. There’s also a great street snack found in various versions all over Asia and Mexico that is green or slightly unripe mango cut into pieces and dipped in chilli and salt. Green mangoes also work well preserved in brine and made into chutneys.
There are many things to love about mangoes: the Indian lassi which balances mangoes' sometimes cloying flavour with the sourness of yoghurt...
Ripe mangoes are suited to savoury preparations too. In India this translates to delicious curries and chutneys, while western cooking seems to have adopted the idea that the sweet fruit is ideal matched with seafood and poultry. I am slowly overcoming my in-built aversion to protein and fruit together but the thought of ripe mango and chicken fills me with horror; turn it into a salad with avocado and it becomes my textural nightmare.
In sweet preparations, however, there are many things to love about mangoes: the Indian lassi which balances mangoes' sometimes cloying flavour with the sourness of yoghurt, mango sago pudding, a Cantonese specialty which can be surprisingly refreshing, an Australian mango pavlova and my favourite, mango sticky rice that uses coconut milk and has a slight salty note. And my mum has also been known to make a rather excellent mango daiquiri.
If you are fond of the fruit, though, there is nothing like the luxury of eating a perfectly ripe whole mango. There is actually an implement specifically designed to help with this, a mango fork invented in the Victorian age that has strangely fallen out of fashion everywhere but Mexico. Personally, I love the slippery seed, holding it with your hands while the juice runs down your arms and sucking it until it’s dry and you are left with stringy fibers to scrape through your teeth.
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Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Peta Gray. Creative concept by Lou Fay.
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