His highness, Mango maharaja: An endless obsession

The sensory romance of the mango leads Himanshu Verma on a journey to uncover how richly it is used in pan-Indian cuisine; the proverbial muse for many a food enthusiast.

By Himanshu Verma

Editor's Note: An arts curator, Himanshu Verma is the founder of Red Earth, a New Delhi based independent arts organisation that works with Indian contemporary visual art as well as diverse forms of cultural expression, started in 2004.

Mango, an indigenous fruit of India, has (reasonably so) reigned supreme in our hearts since time immemorial. It has titillated our taste buds, in its many sub-seasonal and regional varieties, each delighting us sequentially as the scorching Indian summer progresses and peaks, much to the bliss of the patient mango enthusiast.

It is the sensory romance of his highness, the king of fruits that led me on to a journey to uncover how richly it is used in pan-Indian cuisine in such varying ways that it could prove to be the proverbial muse for many a food enthusiast. I discovered that not only was the fruit amenable to being enjoyed unalloyed as it is, but that it lent itself to cuisine in such versatile, enchanting ways – across regions of India, across a variety of dishes from salads to main course to desserts, in everyday home cooking and in arty restaurants.

For conjuring up inspiration, I started with Mango Mojito – replace lemon chunks with raw mango and you have a sure fire hit desi cocktail – Kairi Mojito! This Indian mojito has been a regular ever since on all our party menus. Mango delights with many other drinks – from the classic robustness of the panna to shakes, lassis, sharbats, and more...

The offbeat mango salad is very often a very respectable addition to five star menus, but damn easy to concoct at home. I learnt traditional Mango achaar recipes from my grandmother and then equipped myself with several varying recipes of Mango chutney. Friends kept sending in their own peculiar recipes of mango chutneys. They interpreted the basic mango chutney with great variation, sometimes with small nuanced modifications to the generic style of mango chutney making, in the process bringing in regional and personal ways of seeing the mango chutney. My repertoire of mango chutneys became almost as diverse as the mango itself!

I started experimenting with lesser know mango recipes and preparations, digging out existing recipes, and sometimes brewing new ideas. Exotic dishes like mango dal, mango kadhi, wowed fellow epicureans. With the simple addition of mango to ordinary everyday dishes, they jump up several notches in taste and appeal. Mango magic is easy!

Mango kheer, a dessert that I learnt in school from my Home Sciene teacher capped the mango extravaganza. After much fun with mangoes, a new workshop ‘Cooking with mangoes’ was on the table.

Of course, before I sign off, I have to leave you with more food for thought (and here thought and not food being the operative word) – the mango is not just a food, but indeed a cultural idea. It has inspired poets down from the ancient time of Kalidas to capturing the imagination of 19th century Ghalib. It has been an important symbol of fertility and fruition, and has been associated with myth, religion, art and creative expression in so many ways – from the life of the Buddha, to its linking with Kamadeva, the god of love.  Haveli sangeet / Vaishnava temple verses are replete with references to the sensuous fruit being sourced for the pleasure of Thakurji. When it comes to visual culture; one of the greatest and most popular and versatile motif in textile and craft traditions – the paisley or ambi is nothing but a stylised mango, a symbol that is almost synonymous with India. Think India, and you think paisley, think India, and you think mango. And lastly, the mango continues to make its presence felt in contemporary culture as well. If the popularity of the mango-licking Katrina Kaif commercial is anything to go by, it is clear that the kind of fruits still reigns supreme in the Indian imagination (never mind that the drinks being advertised are often more pumpkin and synthetic than mango! And that these commercials create phoney and dubious new shastras like the ‘aam sutra’).

The mango lives on and rules over our taste buds, stomachs, hearts and minds!