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Mango mantra

It had been a warm winter but a mild drizzle one night promised that the cold was ready to set in. We — a group of four — were at the Spice Route at The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi to celebrate a Calcutta friend’s birthday. We had a smoker in our midst who didn’t want to sit inside the restaurant, where smoking was prohibited.

That was when I bumped into another friend — who then worked for the hotel. We were taken to a courtyard outside the restaurant, where we were invited to sit in a cosy enclosure under a pagoda-like structure. We felt the pleasant chill in the air but were protected from the rain.

That was a magical evening — made more so by the setting. And that’s why I still remember it after all these years. I can even recall what we ate. And I know what we didn’t eat — dishes with mangoes.

Khao neow mamuang

If I’d known chef Veena Arora those days, I am sure she would have recommended some mango dishes. The chef de cuisine at the hotel has been creating brilliant food with the Emperor of all fruits — the mango. She grew up in Thailand (her father was in Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army and settled there after moving from Myanmar) where mangoes — both raw and ripe — are often used in cooking food.

Take the yum pla merk mamuang, which is a Thai salad of fried squid rings, dry shrimp and mango, flavoured with palm sugar. It’s a simple recipe, and worth trying out at home. You have to peel and grate a raw mango, slice an onion, gather some mint leaves and then arrange lettuce leaves on a plate. Dredge squid rings in flour and deep fry them. Mix red chillies, roasted peanuts, palm sugar, dry shrimps, lime juice and fish sauce — and then add them to the mango and onions. Place the mix on the lettuce leaves with the squid rings — and serve either as an appetiser or a part of the main course.

Not just Thailand, in many other parts of Southeast Asia, mangoes are used to flavour dishes. We could use some of these recipes because in India, despite the fact that the mango is an indigenous fruit that goes back some 3,000 years, mangoes don’t really figure in our curries.

“That’s probably because mangoes grow only for a brief season in India,” reasons chef Arora. “In many parts of Southeast Asia, on the other hand, mangoes grow through the year and are readily available.”

And Southeast Asia, which knows a thing or two about cuisine, makes good use of that. I still remember the delicious wrap that a friend from Vietnam prepared for us a couple of years ago. Rice paper had been rolled around all kinds of colourful and delicious strips of fruit and vegetables. Long pieces of mangoes were kept in a row in such a way that when the wrap was ready to be eaten, you could see a beautiful orange line.

Chef Arora’s repertoire includes a very interesting Vietnamese dish called ga xao hot dieu — which is chicken stir-fried with fresh mangoes and cashew nuts. She even has something from Sri Lanka and Kerala on her menu. The Sri Lankan dish is a spicy raw mango curry called amba curry .

Yum pla merk mamuang

The chef believes that if one is cooking with ripe mangoes, any of the various kinds that excite Indians (and divide them into warring groups as well) can be used. I asked her why she used the safeda in many of her recipes. “That’s because the season starts with safeda,” she says. As other mangoes come in — langda, dussehri, chausa and so on — she substitutes the safeda with them. What she doesn’t like to use is the hapus, or the alphonso. It’s overrated and too expensive, she says — and I agree.

In Thailand, the mango she likes to use is the muang oak-rong. It’s this mango that goes into the khao neow mamuang — a Thai sweet dish of sticky rice served with ripe mangoes and garnished with roasted sesame seeds.

I suppose when it comes to desserts, you just can’t beat the use of mangoes in India. They figure in everything — from kheer and yoghurt to kulfi and sondesh. And how can one forget Gujarat’s aamras — a delicious dessert of thick mango juice eaten with puris? But I wish we could use ripe mangoes in our entrees too. I am told there are some 1,000 kinds of mango varieties — so there’s lot to experiment with.

But then I suppose the mango is such a sensitive subject that even when it’s cooked it’ll continue to be the centre of wars. Troy had its Helen — we have our mangoes.

Amba Curry (serves 2)

Ingredients:

• 15ml oil • 3g mustard seeds • 3g methi seeds • 80g onion • 180ml coconut milk • 80g raw mango • 3g turmeric powder • salt to taste • 3g curry powder • 3g red chilli powder • 15g fried curry leaves

Method:

Pour oil into the wok. Add mustard and methi. Add sliced onions, and stir till light brown. Add turmeric, red chilli and curry powder. Peel and slice the raw mango. Add the mango to the onion mixture. Add coconut milk and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with fried curry leaves. Serve with hot rice. (You can add broccoli, baby corn, bamboo shoot and water chestnut to the dish.)

Ga Xao Hot Dieu (serves 2)

Ingredients:

• 150g boneless chicken breast • 40g red capsicum • 40g green capsicum • 20g onion •10g black mushroom • 10g coral mushroom • 15g red whole chillies • 5g garlic • 7ml fish sauce • 5ml sugar • 10ml oyster sauce • 2g black pepper • 100g ripe mango

Method:

Dice the capsicum, removing the seeds. Soak the coral mushrooms till soft. Then cut it into small pieces and remove the stem. Soak the black mushroom, remove the stem and cut it. Dice the mangoes. Put chopped garlic in the wok, stir till light brown. Add chicken slices to it and all the sauces and sugar. Add the rest of the ingredients. Serve hot with rice.