Okay, so this isn’t a typical gardening blog post, but it is about tropical fruit and mangoes are the most popular fruit in the world, believe it or not. Before you correct me with apples or oranges, remember the vast population that lives in prime mango growing real estate below the equator. Yet many American’s mango experiences tend to be disappointing and stringy, in the worst case tasting bland or turpentine, and in the best case just tasting adequate.
First of all, the mangoes most commonly sold at your grocery store are not necessarily the best ambassadors of all the 'king of fruit' has to offer. Those gorgeous big green fruits with blushes of orange and red might look delicious, but they are in fact the lowly and inferior 'Tommy Atkins' mango, a durable yet stringy and insipid variety that pales in comparison to most other mangoes. I bought one to draw for its wonderful colors, but there’s only a small chance that I’ll get around to eating it.
|A mango imposter!|
"But I love my mangoes!" you say. That's okay, just be aware that there are even better ones out there, especially in the case of Indian mangoes. Look for the small, bright yellow ones labeled 'Alfonso' and buy one the first chance you get, because they’re special. They haven't been allowed in the United States since the 70's, thanks to a ban on Indian imported fruit.
In 2007 George W. Bush signed a nuclear treaty with India and told the world that "the U.S. is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes." and South Asian expats all over the United States could finally lick their lips in anticipation of a taste of home. The yellow cashew shaped mangoes aren't as interesting to look at, but they have a much smoother texture and more complex flavor than the ones you're used to. With few exceptions, mango lovers can agree that they taste better in every respect. Look for them in spring at your local Indian grocery or Whole Foods, but if you don't see the Alfonso you're at least likely to encounter another mango worth trying.
The Ataulfo mango is a close relative of the famous Indian mango, but this Mexican variety's widespread availability makes it the second most popular mango in the United States. Marketed as 'Honey' or 'Champagne' mangoes, these are much easier to find than the Indian imports and still taste much better than poor Tommy Atkins.
Surprisingly, even the first 'Honey' mango I've tried tasted horrible. It was like biting into a peach soaked in turpentine but this had nothing to do with the variety; it was just overripe. How can you pick a perfectly ripe mango from the produce aisle and avoid my puckered fate? Supposedly the skin of the mango should be colorful and give slightly when squeezed, and it should have a sweet and floral fragrance. Sadly, I somehow manage to occasionally buy fruit that passes the smell test and still end up with a mouthful of straight up nasty. I'm unlucky that way.
As is the case with most fruit, fresher is always better. While mangoes can still convert the starches to sugar and ripen after they've been picked, those that haven't been plucked until ripe taste the best, so you'll find the best mangoes right on the tree. Miami is a good place to sample fruit, and so are the Philippines. Robert Bornstein, who was nice enough to answer some of my mango questions, directed me to an article he wrote about the Fairchild Botanic Garden's world famous mango festival in July. There you can sample some of the world's best varieties for free, try gourmet recipes and purchase living trees to start your own crop. Even if a trip to the tropics is out of your budget, just give the unassuming yellow mango a try next time. It might not be pretty enough to draw, but at least it's good enough to eat.
|Looks pretty, but doesn't taste so pretty. Drawing by me. :)|
Some of my favorite sketches on Saturday Night Live featured a character played by Chris Kattan by the name of Mango. He was a vaguely Hispanic male exotic dancer with a pink beret and skimpy clothes who tried to lure in unwitting men like Ben Affleck and Garth Brooks before turning them away with lines like "Can you know the mighty ocean? Can you lasso a star from the sky? Can you say to a rainbow... 'Hey, stop being a rainbow for a second'? No! Such is Mango!" and then "You cannot have a ze Mango!"
Tommy Atkins mangoes are coincidentally a lot like the character Mango. They lure you in with their exotic colors and outrageous reputation, but at the end of the day they turn you away and you eventually realize that you fell for the equivalent of a little man in drag.