My mother would recollect incidents from my growing-up years with such frequency that by the time I was a young adult, these stories — somewhat embarrassingly for me — had become part of family lore. This coming together of motherly affection and a raconteur’s gusto would often leave my sister red-faced as well. In one such account, the two of us tip-toe to the kitchen and rummage the green grocery bag to pick out a mango each but no sooner do we try to squeeze the fruits, expecting it to yield a juicy pulp of deliciousness, our adventure comes unstuck. The mangoes, my mother would recall with a chuckle, were indifferent to the cajoling by her children.
The two of us had also not noticed that our grandmother had crept up behind us. But it was only good that she was there. Grandma snatched the fruits from our hands, only to hand them back after carving them into slices on which she had sprinkled a little salt. It dawned on us then that we had chosen the wrong variety of mango for our escapade. That, according to mother, was her children’s first lesson in green mangoes — long before we learnt the intricacies of the fruit’s ripened perfections, the dussehri, langda, chausa or hapus.
Appreciating the green mango’s mildly prickly texture and tartness would take some time. But for the time being, grandma proceeded to demonstrate the tender side of our bete noire. As she roasted the raw fruit over open fire, flipping it from time to time, the mango began to come into its own. Once it was soggy, grandmother peeled the fruit’s skin, and as she used her hands to draw out the pulp, the mango released a smoky sour aroma: It was a message of sorts to us, perhaps, to let go of all misgivings. Our hurt feelings were assuaged when grandma added sugar, roasted cumin seeds and rock salt to the pulp and brought the mixture together into a delicious drink by adding cold water. This was the aam porar shorbot which, I learnt later, is the Bengali variant of the popular summer cooler, aam panna.
With the green mango on your side, grandma would say, one can take on the summer sun, even when it is at its unforgiving worst. On some days, she would set to work early, peeling the raw fruit and chopping it into small pieces. These would be popped, along with moosuri dal (red lentil), into a pot of boiling water. After adding salt, a pinch of sugar and turmeric, grandma would let the fire do its job. But she would spring into action in a jiffy, snapping green chillies and heating oil for the nigella seed tempering. Once fresh coriander was thrown in, the aromas of the lentil dish would send the salivary glands into a tizzy.
Years after my grandmother passed away, I became acquainted with the fruit’s versatility. A friend from Bankura in West Bengal treated me to a fish curry cooked in a raw mango and mustard gravy. On another occasion, a friend from Kerala pampered me with a prawn curry cooked with the unripe variety of the fruit. I also learnt about the fruit’s life beyond the summers. As a student of history, I read the Mughal Emperor Babur’s encomiums to it in his memoirs, Baburnama. Mangoes are plucked raw to be made into condiments and syrups, he wrote. That led me to join a few other dots from my childhood. Biji, our elderly neighbour, for example, would store mangoes in jars full of mustard oil. With time, the concoction’s pungency would mellow and the mangoes would pickle exquisitely to reveal the flavours of cumin, fenugreek and mustard.
And as I write this, Mani, my cooking help, is adding her mite in my battle with the summer. Raw mango is being grated and mustard seeds and chana dal are crackling in curry-leaf-infused oil. There will be mango rice on the table soon.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Bon Appetit!: Green is Good’