Vittles 6.11 - Mangoes

The Pleasure and Politics of Eating Mangoes, by Apoorva Sripathi

There was a meme floating around last year of seven or eight interlocking hands, labelled ‘Indian’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Filipino’, ‘ Jamaican’, ‘Nigerian’, ‘Thai’, ‘Colombian’ all coalescing around the word ‘mango’. The love that people have for the mango is quite extraordinary — I can’t think of another food item that inspires so much ardour, so much bad poetry. I find something very wholesome over whole nations simping over a fruit, the desire for and fetishisation of flesh, not from an animal but from a plant. In London this manifests itself in the storefronts of its neighbourhoods during certain seasons: the Anwar Ratols at its Pakistani shops gradually fade into Alphonsos and Kesars in East Ham and Tooting. Outside Kingsbury Fruit and Veg you have mango touts diverting the queue into the street, opening box after box so aunties and uncles can double check the state of them. Jamaican mangoes adorn Brixton later in the season, and some may argue these are London’s unsung mangoes. Once, Will Akman bought back a mango from Ghana and at Quality Wines we cooed over it like it was a newborn baby — a huge thing, bottle green and bursting with black stretch marks.

Some may say then, that mango is the great uniter. Don’t be so sure. Things that inspire great love also inspire passionate defences and attacks, acrimony and division. Once I saw a fight almost break out in Kingsbury between the queue and the man at the front who was taking too long to select his box. “Don’t bother me just because you know nothing about mangoes” he said as he stormed off. Plus of course, everyone is a nativist when it comes to mangoes, whether it’s north vs south, Indian vs Pakistani, Japanese department stores selling ruby red Kumamoto mangoes for £25 each which are really not much better than a £1.50 one. Even Vivek Menezes, in his outstandingly thorough mango article earlier this month, can’t quite resist advocating for the supremacy of the Goan mango (and not for the first time).

But as writer and mango doyenne Apoorva Sripathi points out, in today’s anti-mango love letter, there are things apart from connoisseurship and nationality that divide mango lovers — class, caste, diet, and who has access to them. Mangoes aren’t the root cause of this, of course, but they become symbolic of those divisions. London as a mango city is only reflective of it as a post-colonial one, where mangoes are bought and enjoyed to access the identity lost through migrations from countries where they were more readily available.

The COVID-19 pandemic briefly threatened the mango supply chain, which was my very convenient pandemic-related excuse for commissioning Apoorva to write about mangoes. Now the atmosphere, which was verging on mutinous, is a lot better, with mangoes available in most areas of London with south Asian communities. I heard even Natoora now finally have Alphonsos. But the delay was enough to remind everyone about their importance, at how diminished this already diminished summer would be without them. The politics of mangoes are not simple, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be enjoyed with abandon. Apoorva’s critical piece provides crucial balance to the hagiographies out there, something to pause and think about, mango in hand, just before your mouth is flooded with juice and your mind, for a few sweet seconds, becomes oblivion.

The Pleasure and Politics of Eating Mangoes, by Apoorva Sripathi

I hated mangoes growing up.

I don’t really know why I didn’t like them. Maybe because it made my family forget all that animosity we had between each other, that by focusing on the mango it made them ignore everything else we had to sort out. The eating of mangoes could bring my divisive family together in those 10 to 15 minutes of quiet consumption, in between sounds of animated slurping, and then, during the review of the mango that was just polished off, like some kind of fruit autopsy. You learnt everyone’s favourite mango but also that a favourite cultivar was, more often than not, just a standby; because there were always more mangoes to be eaten. 

It was the same with my cousins — every summer holiday sleepover included a large mango feast, which I was left out of. Apparently, I read too much, fought too much, questioned too much, didn’t comply enough, didn’t practice Carnatic singing enough, didn’t let the boys have the first bite, shared my mangoes with my domestic help. As much as I realised that the mango was ‘special’ to my family, I also realised that it was discriminatory. It disgusted me. I hated eating mangoes so much that as a junior reporter on the lifestyle-culture beat for The Hindu, I wrote what would now be considered a ‘hot take’ — glorifying the raw mango in opposition to all my colleagues who waxed poetic about the different varieties of the ripe fruit. “Raw mango”, I wrote, “with chilli-salt is one of the truest joys of Chennai summer, and one of my most cherished memories of childhood.”

It took me 25 years to really appreciate a ripe mango. In Mumbai, I set aside my disdain and tried amrakhand, a dessert of thick, full fat yogurt flavoured with Alphonso mango pulp (Chitale brand, for those in the know). I didn’t think it would take amrakhand to make me a convert, and before I knew it, I was spooning whole mouthfuls for breakfast, or on hot white toast or roti. And then as dessert also. There is no wrong way to eat amrakhand. Or a mango — although you should always suck the stone; it is truly the best bit. And for me, the Banganapalli is at the apex (sorry-not-sorry to all Alphonso fans).

After Mumbai, it was Bangalore, and then back to Chennai, where I couldn’t imagine summer without the fruit. Three different cities offered me three different ways of eating mangoes. In Mumbai, it was amrakhand with toast, Alphonso with dinner, Kesar and Dasheri for breakfast. Bangalore gave me Malgoas, Totapuris, peptic ulcers, and the confidence to add sweet, pulpy mangoes in rasams and curries. While I focused on recovery during the first half of my stay in Chennai, the second half was devoted to eating any available variety of the mango in every form imaginable. 

I remember reading somewhere — with a certain amount of scepticism given the labour of women as mothers is often glossed over — that the Asian love language is a bowl of cut fruit. But perhaps it is true with mangoes. Mango is a tricky fruit to cut, unless it is raw. I am aware of all the tips and tricks on the internet telling me how to slice and dice a mango, but no good mango is actually that easy or enjoyable to cut. It’s pulpy and slippery. The only way is to make a mess, to have juice run all over your hands, pulp falling everywhere, and the disappointment of a knife hitting the stone. All this during Indian summer (which is no joke btw) making it even more annoying. So you can keep all your mango hacks, thank you. If your mother actually takes the time to cut the best mango possible, refrigerate it, and then offer it in a bowl, that is love. But it is also unpaid labour, so just cut your own mango and then suck the pulp around the stone. Keep a plate on your lap to catch the debris.

In 2018, after years of saving up and many deliberations, I went to study in London, where I spent one of my best mango summers. By then I had talked enough about mangoes with my  colleagues at Eater London, where I briefly interned. Editor Adam Coghlan helped me find some of the best mangoes in London — from La Grotta Ices’ mango sorbet to Banganapallis in Walthamstow, not to mention Kesars, Chaunsas, and Alphonsos. Armed with more information from conversations, I ventured out in search of more mangoes and I wasn’t disappointed. There were Sri Lankan shops in Tooting and East Ham, some Bangladeshi shops in Bethnal Green, and, of course, London’s many markets that supplied me with a variety of mangoes. If I couldn’t get any mangoes, I settled for the tinned pulp. 

Besides, one or two odd boxes of Banganapallis, London only had north and west Indian mangoes to offer, and of those, Alphonsos were everywhere. The bias towards north and west Indian food has always been a strong feature of ‘Indian cuisine’ in the UK. The reality is that there’s no such thing as ‘Indian cuisine', but different regional cuisines — a truth that has started to take shape now in the West. I realised that this was true of mangoes as well. Part of it is due to the fact that Alphonsos are a relatively sturdy cultivar that hold up well during travel. Another reasoning is that Alphonsos are known quite well — world’s most delicious mangoes, one essay says — and maintain a similar more-than-satisfactory taste; as in they deliver consistent quality, every single time. There’s also the fact that plenty of Alphonsos are ripened chemically and artificially, which makes it easy for mass export. Extensive research on this has now unwittingly turned me into that person at parties who debates mango cultivars.

Falling in love with mangoes was unintentional but unavoidable. It was only a matter of time given that I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life. But my education on the mango — the labour relations involved in nurturing the plant; its role in home-building and as an identity for migrants; as a trope for South Asian writing, nationalism, and nostalgia; playing a key role in gift exchange; and being recognised as a mainstay for not just the Indian subcontinent, but also for parts of South and Central America, the Caribbean, and SouthEast Asia, and their culture and economy — came much later. 

What identity am I constructing with the mango? What identity do I get to construct with the mango? Home, as a concept and a social/physical/psychological construct, has been changing for me since 2015, but the very act of eating certain foods, like mango, helped create and recreate home through memories of it. And eating certain other dishes — like rice and fish curry, beef lasagna, pork chops and mint sauce — helped me take on a new identity, one that was different from the one I had forged at ‘home’. 

At ‘home’ in India, caste and commensality still play an active role in who can eat what and who is allowed to share what kinds of food. Vegetarianism, access to the best quality of food, even fruits like the mango, have always been an upper-class, upper-caste hegemony. A question then, about transitioning into a plant-based diet being better for everyone in India, is tricky to answer. The movement towards eating less meat does, overall, make so much sense in the long run. But the politics of meat eating isn’t a black and white situation in India, especially when it comes face to face with caste identity, and its link to lynching and beef bans. I had been raised as a vegetarian for close to 25 years; eating meat, eggs, and even cheese that contained rennet was forbidden. It is a purer way of living, I was taught. It took me 25 years of learning and unlearning to call BS on that, the same amount of time it took me to love a mango. In many ways, I’m still unlearning the politics I have been taught to abide by, that vegetarianism is supposed to be ‘morally superior’.

Now, mangoes and the question of their consumption, make me realise that they are not just one of the many tropical fruits that needs to be experienced, but rather, cultural products that raise questions of taste, and also of a convergence of capital, class, caste, differentiation, diaspora and belonging. While working on my dissertation, which covers mangoes and their link to migrants, home-building and identity, I spoke to many people from south Asian cultures to whom the mango held a key significance. It helped them construct both a personal identity and a national one. For some, it was the fruit that formed a community between Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi, converging in shops like Taj Stores on Brick Lane or at the many local Indian supermarkets where the discussions would invariably centre on mangoes. 

For others like Moorthy, a farmer in Tamil Nadu I met during my research, the mango is livelihood. It is the knowledge of agricultural production he’s known all his life. It’s the knowledge that is embodied. It is farmers like Moorthy who inform us of what Wendell Berry perceptively notes in The Pleasures of Eating — that “eating is an agricultural act”. What may seem like an individual’s consumption choices is actually tied to a larger social system that needs to change. Just like problematic agricultural practices, the concentration of ownership of lands into some hands, organisation of labour, the growing reliance of industrial foods, the differentiation of cooking into many hierarchies. For me, the mango is a fruit of pleasure, whose soft pulp I now look forward to sinking my face in every summer. But it’s also much more than that.

Apoorva Sripathi is a writer on food, culture, and books from Chennai, India. She also runs shelf offering, (yet another) newsletter on cooking, recipes, and conversations surrounding the food system. You can find her on Twitter. She was paid for this newsletter.

The mango illustration is by Reena Makwana . Reena was also paid for her work.