I have a lot of time for Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef and cookery writer. Unlike many other British food gurus he’s not pompous, nor is he faux-relaxed like so many of them. No, Ottolenghi is genuinely chilled out, his recipes are brilliant and backed by serious knowledge of food, especially Mediterranean culinary traditions. Ottolenghi isn’t a veggies-only chef by any definition but one of his main contributions to Western food thinking has been to make vegetables and pulses ‘sexy’. For the longest time his column about vegetarian food was one of the most inspiring things going, where the man celebrated colourful, bold recipes in a direct challenge to both under-tasting Western veggie cookery and pedantic regional loyalties to Indian/South Asian, Thai or Vietnamese cuisines. YO stole openly from all over the world, and mixed and matched with flair, while managing to respect the traditions from which he had just kidnapped an idea or ingredient. He has created a huge following for new vegetarian cooking without at all looking down on meat, chicken, fish or seafood.
Given how much respect I have for Ottolenghi, it’s extra startling when he gets something spectacularly wrong. In a recent column in The Guardian (http://www.theguardian .com/lifeandstyle/2014/apr/25/mango-recipes-yotam-ottolenghi), YO bemoans the fact that the European Union was banning the import of his favourite fruit, the Indian mango, more specifically the alphonso. Ottolenghi then notes that the Bangladeshi national anthem sings of the mango groves and how their fragrance drives one mad. “Ah, how very nice,” you think, “that he’s got Amar Shonar Bangla”. But then, the reference is followed by this leap: “But a mango is not a mango is not a mango, and I doubt Bangladeshis are thinking of the hard, mild Tommy Atkins mango that we get year round. No, I’d guess the object of their affections is the intensely fragrant alphonso, whose season is short but so very sweet.”
Haririririri, Yotam Bhai, eita ki koitasen! What is this you’ve just said! No, and again no, meaning, yes, totally correct that a mango is not a mango is not… always… an alphonso. When Tagore wrote about the fragrance of the aamer bon, he was not thinking of the Rani of far Ratnagiri but Bengal’s own fantastic varieties of aam. Ottolenghi then continues the bloomer in his next paragraph: “Alongside Bollywood and cricket, the alphonso is a national obsession in India…” No chance. Try feeding a northerner an alphonso and she will come out in hives, “Call this a mango?” she’ll snarl, “where’s a decent ...?” she will demand — fill in the blank with langda, safeda, chausa or dussehri; likewise with people from other regions of India who all, respectively, dream of their own mango varieties and not, thank god, the alphonso.
The alphonso, aka the hapoos, is only one of India’s many varieties of mango, a party that ranges between 500 and 1000 cultivars. Unlike varieties that go back to Vedic times and beyond, the alphonso-hapoos is a relatively recent addition to the family. It is the issue of a shotgun marriage conducted a few hundred years ago by some Portuguese horticulturalist, possibly a graft between the Goan pairi and the kesar found in Gujarat, maybe with some other Malabar coast parentages thrown in. The only purity to be found in it is the relationship developed with it by Marathis and Gujaratis. For us (for I am from one of the groups named above) the hapoos is evidence that superior beings exist and occasionally bless us hapoos-bhakts with magical largesse. The rest of India, as far as we are concerned can go eat mere mangoes.
Over the years I’ve developed a strange relationship with the alphonso-hapoos. In India, unless you happen to be in Maharashtra or Gujarat during the kairi season, the desire for the hapoos is regarded as a strange perversion of people with more money than sense — why else would you pay up to four times the price of the nearest great mango for this aam-aam? In Delhi or Calcutta, the game starts by mid-April or so, when the first supplies arrive from the west coast and the fruit sellers start to name crazy prices; a bit later the price comes down, only to go up again as the hapoos season slides to an end. In London, where I’ve often found myself between April and July, one can’t easily find any other mango at the big Indian grocers; come early May the stacks of the garish boxes start to show up and while the prices don’t fluctuate nearly as much as they do in India, you still end up paying a high premium for your craving. Hauling back a box or two on the bus, I’ve often found myself caught between guilt and resentment: guilt because one feels the prices of hapoos are cruelly high in India precisely because of its export market, and resentment because the Brit friends to whom one offers this rare gift just eat it like they were eating any ordinary kiwi or pineapple.
This year, sitting here in Calcutta, there has been a different up and down with the alphonso. First comes the news of the EU import ban and the projected glut, with the prices plummeting. Then come reports that, like chocolate and coffee , my favourite mango variety is not long for this world — radical changes in ecological conditions around the Malabar coast could mean that the alphonsappus is soon going to be as extinct as the platypus. Trapped in a pincer of greed and terror, I go around the fruit-sellers in Bhowanipore, looking to corner my next boxes of alphonso at bargain prices. No luck — the price of a dozen had dropped by the normal mid-season hundred bucks, take it or leave it, babu. Babu takes it, of course. As I open the box and take out the first three, I remember the story about the nawab, Siraj-ud-Daula, beheading a servant who cut wrongly one of Murshidabad’s precious golapkhaas mangoes. Riven by regret — not about the servant but the wasted fruit — Siraj apparently commissioned the design of a special bamboo knife that cut the mango without assaulting the flesh with any metallic taste. I have no such implement, so I just use the sharpest knife I have to slice open a cheek of brilliant yellow.
Aah, the heavenly taste fully appreciated only by the chosen people. Oh, the dread of a time when this bouquet might no longer be available. Ah, the complex taste again, the gustatory resonance with the best extra virgin olive oil, and then the redolence of the sea, of coastal summer flowers in shameless bloom and of sandalwood in the nape of an apsara. As I savour this perfect mango, I have a vision: perhaps each hapoos fruit is hand-massaged on the branch by trained men with very delicate fingers.
For a country like India that’s increasingly, madly, turning non-vegetarian, Yotam Ottolenghi and his culinary philosophy might provide a very good counter-balance. But where YO only mentions pairing chicken with mangoes, I suddenly remember a great dish from two years ago, when I visited Burma in the mango season — a beautiful, traditional fusion of ripe mango and pork. As friends from Bombay call and assure me that the hapoos prices will for sure be dropping further I feel an experimentational urge twitch through my fingers. Chicken and golapkhaas, pork and totapari, and maybe some good Calcutta beef and hapoos could also work, why not? Maybe I’ll write to Yotam Bhai and ask.