The best place to eat a mango, the sahibs used to say and practise in the days of the Raj, was the bathtub. This was a peculiarly backhanded tribute to the fruit’s juiciness and also to its irresistible attraction for the gourmet and the gourmand. The fruit is kind of messy to eat, unless it is cut up into pieces and then eaten with a fork. A true lover of mangoes would not deign to eat the fruit in such a manner, since it omits the seed, which is so delicious to suck.
It wasn’t the white man alone who was enamoured of the mango. The founder of the Mughal Empire, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, also wrote about the fruit in his memoirs, Baburnama. Babur was no lover of things Indian. His soul sighed all the time for his homeland, Fergana in Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), the land of melon and cool water. But the mango he thought was comparable to the melon, even if the mango, in his opinion, was a shade inferior to the melon.
He described the mango as “the best fruit of Hindustan”. He approvingly quoted Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) on the mango, “Beautifier of the garden, most beautiful fruit of Hindustan.’’ But Babur noted with a great deal of insight and almost on a prophetic note that really good mangoes are scarce.
Nothing could be more true. How many can honestly claim that they have tasted a kohitur or a ranipasand, mangoes that are so delicate that they have to be wrapped up in cottonwool and eaten within hours after they have been picked. A handful of trees in Murshidabad probably grow this variety. The best mango that is commonly available is the langda, a mango so juicy that the seed of a good langda is no more than a sliver. The taste of a genuine langda is an ineffable sweetness but unlike the himsagar, it is never too sweet. The aroma of a langda is heady and often the smell a sign of the mango’s class. A much underrated variety is the golapkhas, which heralds the arrival of the mango season but itself has a very short tenure. The fazli and the alphonso are much talked about, but neither can compare with the langda and the himsagar.
There are innumerable local varieties, each with their distinctive flavours. Good mangoes are vain and delicate things. They do not like being left on the shelf. No connoisseur will downgrade a mango for low shelf life or upgrade one because it is good for export. Mangoes for business and mangoes for taste and sheer aesthetic pleasure demand two completely different criteria.
The popularity of the mango has made it an integral part of any meal in Bengal during the fruit’s season. It is also made into a dessert. The sahibs made the mango fool (mango puree and whipped cream) and the mango soufflé. The Bengali housewives made the aamkheer (the juice of the mango mixed with thickened and sweetened milk). Then followed almost inevitably the mango ice cream which, as somebody said, is a waste of an ice cream and a mango.
Mangoes have become part of the glutton’s lore of Calcutta. A famous Bengali philologist, renowned for his Gargantuan appetite, was known to consume in any given sitting a wicker basket or jhuri full of mangoes. Not many can match that. But a good mango is difficult to resist. To quote Babur again: “When a mango is good, it is very good.’’