Mangomania—a delicious fruit of the hot season

sweet mangoes

Sweet mangoes for the dessert khao nieo mamuang.

When the heat of April and May is at its most grueling, the mango ripens, to the delight of everyone.

Turkish poets as well as Mogul emperors have extolled the virtues of the mango which is often praised as ‘the king of fruits’; yet both the durian and pineapple have also been honoured in such terms.

Few will contest that slices of ripe mango with sticky rice cooked in sweet coconut milk is unsurpassed as the delicacy of the season.


It is also the dessert par excellance — otherwise Thai cuisine is not usually noted for sweets as the final course of a meal.

According to a handbook on tropical fruit, only the consumption of bananas exceeds that of mangoes in the tropics.

mangoes for sale in a Chiang Mai market.

Mangoes for sale in a Chiang Mai market.

Fortunately, Northern Thailand produces an abundance of mangoes and during the season, aficionados can indulge their tastebuds almost anywhere. What’s more, some of the finest varieties are widely grown in Thailand. Most foreigners prefer the ripe and sweet fruit.

Among the international community of globe-trotters, enjoying a plate of khao nieo mamuang (mango with sticky rice) in the Sailomjoy restaurant near Tha Phae Gate, where the delicacy is available throughout the year, has become something of a cult.

Thais and other Asians, however, also love to eat the unripe, sour tasting fruit. Slices of unripe mango are popular as snacks and are accompanied by spicy condiments, such as nam phrik kapi (a sauce of chili and fermented fish), phrik klua (sugar, salt and chili) or nam pla wan (sweet and salt fish sauce). Many of the fruits are pickled and made into piquant chutneys or jam and candy. In the West mango mousse is considered a rather exquisite dessert, while an aperatif made from sweet mango in combination with smoked ham will pleasantly surprise your guests.

 

Most cultivated mangoes (in Thailand or elsewhere) belong to the species Mangifera indica or the Indian mango — in Thai called mamuang. Mangoes belong to the rather large family of Anacardiaceae, which consists mainly of tropical trees, some others of which are also the source of delicacies — the best known examples being the cashew and the pistachio nut trees. Many members of the family contain resins which smell of turpentine and may cause skin rashes. For example, the exudates of the rak yai (Gluta usita), a tree abundant on the lower slopes of Doi Suthep — where it produces lovely showers of tiny flowers in January — may cause skin blisters that last for several days.

 

fruits Gluta

In January, the rak yai trees on the lower slopes of Doi Suthep are covered with red, young seeds.

The cultivated mango tree also contains some of these resinous substances. The wood of the mango is moist and soft and is considered as very inferior.

Around 1700, the blind naturalist Rumphius reported from the Moluccas that it is of little use. However, factories in India that produce matches occasionally resort to using it when no other wood is available.

Whilst all that has been said in the past about mango wood may be true, Thai ingenuity and modern kiln-drying techniques have enabled local craftsmen to use the wood to produce a plethora of beautiful craft items, with the beautiful natural colour and grain of the wood shining through.

Turned bowls and vases are just two of the many exciting products on sale in the local craft markets; and also available for export. Interestingly, the ‘national skin colour’ of the Filipinos is considered to be the ‘colour of mango wood’.

Except for the inferior wood and resins, the mango tree is otherwise a perfect fruit tree. Its dense, evergreen foliage makes it a excellent shade tree, growing to a respectable height of forty metres. To view a fully grown mango tree, head for Pai; by road, some 150 kilometres northwest of Chiang Mai. In the outskirts of this pleasant district town you will find what is claimed to be Thailand’s largest mango tree. In February, this giant is in full bloom — a truly magnificent sight.

 

Mangoes for sale in a Chiang Mai market.

Mangoes for sale in a Chiang Mai market.

Under optimum conditions such large mango trees are known to bear over four million tiny flowers, each of the large branched clusters at the end of twigs containing many thousands of tiny blossoms. Blooming mango trees are such a remarkable phenomenon in the countryside, that February is called the ‘season of the mango blossom’. Allergy to the pollen of its flowers is the Thai equivalent of the hay fever that many Westerners suffer in springtime. The flowers are sometimes used to repel mosquitoes, but are also believed to be an aphrodisiac. Many flowers are shed before they have a chance to turn into fruit, yet, in a good year, a bumper crop of up to 35,000 fruits per tree is not unusual.

During harvest time the ripening fruits dangle at the end of long twigs, resembling corpses hanging from gallows. (Interestingly, among tribes in Orissa, India, the mango tree is the favourite tree used by people committing suicide by hanging.) In their home compounds Thai people use a takro, a long pole ending in a rattan wicker basket, to collect the fruits. After the mango has been carefully manipulated through the opening of the basket, the takro is turned around a few times, resulting in the twisting and breaking of the twig. Mangoes are collected in various other ways, but climbing a mango tree is not considered a viable option. Many trees are home to thousands of red ants that build their nests in them. These ants are regarded as godsend by the farmers, as they kill insects harmful to the tree. They defend their territory by fiercely biting any intruder, including man, which is aptly expressed in the Thai proverb mot daeng faeng phuang mamuang (‘red ants guarding a cluster of mangoes’) with a meaning similar to ‘like the dog in the manger’ (not: mango!).

 

ripening mangoes

Mangoes ripening in a tree resemble corpses hanging from gallows.

As there are many different mango varieties, the size and form of the fruit is quite variable — the smallest is the size of a large plum, while the largest mango ever produced was grown in Hawaii, weighing in at a whopping 2.47 kilogrammes. Despite such variation, most strains of mango have somehow retained their typical mango shape — flattish oval with a slightly asymmetrical top that looks like a ‘beak’.
When ripe, most Thai mangoes are yellow; their leathery skins concealing plenty of juicy, yellow-orange flesh and a large, flat kernel. The fruit contains some vitamin B and C, but is extremely rich in vitamin A — about twenty times more than an orange. Beside sugars (about 20 per cent), mangoes also contain substantial amounts of protein, so as well as being delicious they are also an important food source.

Some of the best known varieties in Thailand are the maha cha nok, fa lan, nam dok mai, khieo sawoei, and man bang khun si. These mangoes are all relatively flat and long, and have a green skin that turns yellow as the fruit ripens. Almost round mango varieties or mangoes with  a red flush are typically grown in tropical America and Florida, but are virtually unknown in Thailand.

The mango in folklore and history

The mango tree is probably native to India where it is known as the am (Hindi) and has been grown for 4000 years. Despite its virtues, which are now being praised universally, the fruit only started to conquer the tropical regions outside the Indian subcontinent five centuries ago. In India the origin of the tree is steeped in mythology. It is believed to have grown from the ashes of the Daughter of the Sun God; and to be one of the ‘transformations’ of the god Prajapati, Lord of all Creation. Further evidence of its veneration is found in the fact that a mango grove was presented to the Lord Buddha to provide him with seclusion, shade, and tranquility. Hindus consider planting a mango tree as meritorious. In the Varaka Purana, one of their holy scriptures, it is stated that ‘He never goes to hell who plants five mangoes.’ A mango tree is considered to be auspicious at every place, but situated at the eastern end of a house it is believed to give rise to wealth. On any auspicious occasion Indian Hindus bring branches and leaves of the tree into their home. It is also considered to be the tree of destiny or fate and is involved in many rites of passage, such as wedding ceremonies.

 

Preparing sticky rice with slices of sweet mango.

Preparing sticky rice with slices of sweet mango.

Under Mogul rule (since the sixteenth century) the mango was highly revered and even given royal patronage. Some 100,000 mangoes were planted as an orchard by Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) and some of them are said to be still in existence. Furthermore, until recently many of India’s tribes observed a mango fruit festival, before the observance of which, it was taboo to eat the fruit. Some tribes associate the fruit with the human testicles; still others believe death came to the world through the mango and mourners at a funeral would ceremonially step over mango bark before returning home.

Since the late fifteenth century, Portuguese traders spread the mango to other parts of the tropics, including Africa and America, where the fruit became very popular. As a matter of fact, mango is a corruption of manga which was the Portuguese translation of man-kay, the Tamil word for the fruit. In the seventeenth century it was already being widely grown in Southeast Asia, where the fruit was used as a pickled garnish for rice.

Fresh mangoes probably first reached the West in the second half of the nineteenth century. Queen Victoria was known to be particularly fond of the fresh fruit. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that mangoes were canned and exported — the first mango cannery coming into operation in Calcutta in 1910. However, a yellow pigment obtained from the urine of cattle fed with mango leaves has been known in the West for at least 350 years. The bright component of this ‘Indian yellow’ is mangiferine, a substance notably absent in the fruit. It is believed that the paintings of the masters in Holland’s Golden Age, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, achieved their ‘golden’ brilliance, a phenomenon as least partly due to this substance. Its production was, however, very harmful to the suffering cattle.

 

wild mangoes

Wild mangoes are smaller than the cultivated ones but often taste excellent.

Wild mango trees, such as Mangifera sylvatica, are quite common in Northern Thailand and other parts of South-East Asia, although they may easily be confused with cultivated varieties that have naturalized in the forest. According to Clauvis Thorel, the botanist of the French Mekong Expedition of 1866-1868, the latter were already present in almost all forests of the region in the mid-nineteenth century.

Wild mango trees produce smaller fruits which exude a strong turpentine-like smell, but their taste is not inferior to many cultivated varieties. Around wild mango trees along the highways in the countryside, one often finds many kernels amidst the fallen fruits, witnessing that passersby have stopped to sample these instant snacks. The flesh of wild mangoes and some of the cultivated varieties may be rather fibrous, which has led to rare rejections of the fruit, it being described as ‘a ball of tow, soaked in turpentine and molasses’.

Mango relatives

A cousin of the mango is the hog plum (Spondias mombin), or ‘yellow mombin plum’, which has a distinctive turpentine-like odour. Despite a sour taste and a relatively large kernel, this yellow-orange plum-like fruit can often be spotted in local Thai markets — where in Thai it is called the maprang. In the Dutch East-Indies it was considered to be rather inferior, as was suggested by the name varkenspruim (‘pig plum’). The fruit is native to tropical America; and in Guatemala, a delicious ‘cider’ is made from it.

Mango blossom.

Mango blossom.

A relative of the hog plum, but native to South and Southeast Asia, is the kedongdong (Spondias cyntherea), a fruit a little larger than a plum with greenish or brownish skin covered with dark speckles. It is grown throughout the tropics and also known as ambarello or Otaheite (Tahiti) apple. The firm, white flesh resembles that of an apple and the rather large kernel has many spines. In Thai, the fruit is called makok and it is believed that the village of Bang Kok (Bangkok), on the bank of the Chao Phraya, was named after this fruit tree. Following the sacking of Ayutthaya (1767) king Taksin moved the Thai capital to this area. However, the name of the village may also in fact refer to the makok nam, another tree cultivated for its edible fruits, but belonging to the rather different family of Elaeocarpaceae.

©SJON HAUSER: STORY AND PICTURES