To the uninitiated, the names perhaps sound like islands on the far side of the globe: Aapoos, Mulgoa, Langra. But to those in the know, those words conjure indescribable gastronomical delights. For them, a mango is never just a mango, and it is certainly not that hard, fibrous abomination with the blushing skin that is unceremoniously dumped on North American grocery store shelves, year in and year out. That variety, more likely than not the Tommy Atkins or one of its relatives, is one of the most common cultivars in North America. But a thousand others exist in India, each with a particular provenance, each inspiring cultish devotion. For some, nothing beats the Neduchalai of the south, a mango so lush, with such a small seed, it scents the whole house. Others swear by the curvaceous, powerfully succulent Banganapalli, or the graceful Dussehri. But no mango can claim more passionate devotees, especially outside the subcontinent, than the small, fat golden mango called the Alphonso.
In spring, when a gourmand’s fancy has barely turned to thoughts of asparagus, the Alphonso aficionados start popping up on foodie sites like Chowhound. They want to know, in Montreal, Vancouver, San Francisco and London: “Are they here yet?” One query two weeks ago about whether the season had started (it has) sparked more than 100 passionate responses. Its author, a Torontonian, admitted to polishing off eight cases of the mangoes last year.
The “king of mangoes” requires a commitment: it’s only sold by the case here—$23 to $25 for a dozen. Many people buy more than one, according to Sadroo Dharamsi. A transplanted Tanzanian, he owns an Indian grocery store in Toronto called Sadroo’s. (You can tell he’s in when his pristine white 1969 Rolls-Royce with the licence plate “Msala 2” is parked out front.) He says one customer recently bought 12 cases in one go—144 mangoes straight off the plane from Bombay, nestled in their beds of recycled paper strips. Most of his clientele is Indian, but converts come too. In early April, before volcanic ash played havoc with shipments and appetites, a woman was in buying a crate to try. She said she is of Chinese background and usually buys Thai mangoes, but she’d been hearing so much about Alphonsos from her Indian friends she had to taste them for herself.
What’s all the fuss about? If a mango is what a peach aspires to be, as Jules Janick, a professor of horticulture at Purdue University, says, then the Alphonso—not to be confused with the longer, flatter Ataulfo, from Mexico—is perhaps the pinnacle of that ambition, an unassuming, dull-looking mango from western India, yellow-skinned, like all but four of India’s major varieties, with a glorious, saffron-coloured flesh. It is moist and buttery in texture, never stringy, and almost obscenely juicy. Its taste is rich, implausibly sweet, with just a hint of acidity. The fanatic, intent on getting every last morsel, will suck on the large stone (the seed is contained within), letting the juices dribble where they may, and perhaps even on the peel, which is surprisingly fragrant.
The British actor Terence Stamp confessed he eats them in the bath—“you can’t enjoy the Alphonso without getting just a little messy,” he wrote in The Spectator magazine. Erika Oliveira, a Canadian who was art director of the late lamented Gourmet, has childhood memories of tossing flip-flops at low-hanging fruit on the 60-foot trees in Bombay (now Mumbai). As an adult she’d fill the fridge in her apartment with nothing but mangoes. “We’d eat five, six, seven a day,” she said. “Alphonsos were my favourite.” And Vikram Vij, who owns the legendary Vancouver restaurant Vij’s, is “a huge fan.” Growing up in Bombay and Delhi, he was inducted into mango culture by his father, who was uncompromising when it came to mangoes: he’d buy them semi-ripe, by the caseload, then wrap each fruit individually in newspaper to ripen it, turning it carefully now and then, as one might a fine champagne, recalled Vij. (Perhaps inspired by that education and the “mango parties” of his youth, Vij now serves several mango-inflected dishes, such as a green mango curry using semi-ripe mango.)
Connoisseurs of the Indian mango can claim some authority; the fruit originated there more than 4,000 years ago, and India is still the world’s top producer. The reason there are so many varieties, explains professor Jonathan Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida, is that the Indian mango—the other major “race” of the fruit is the Philippines mango—has been lovingly cultivated for a thousand years, with seedlings often made to bond with stems of beloved neighbourhood trees in hopes of recapturing the taste of one particular fruit. (In the genealogical roulette of propagation, a mango seed will not necessarily produce fruit, or the same kind of fruit that its parent did.) Often, these new hybrids got their own names.
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