The advent of summer was marked with the arrival of pickles. Succulent tender mangoes marinating in hot chili sauce, tangy and tart lemons infused with powdered spices and foul smelling sariba soaked in curd and turmeric. The pickles were packaged under the guarded eyes of my paternal grandmother and came with specific instructions. The lemon was stashed away and except for my father, the rest of us steered clear of the sariba. The war was always over the tender mangoes. The smaller ones were the most delicious, so copious quantities of curd rice were gobbled to cajole my mother into serving more of those mini-sized marvels.
One of the many treats that came with the sweltering heat of Indian summers was the ripe mango. They made the incessant sweating and scalp frying scorch almost bearable. To the less initiated, there are fruits and then there is the mango. Just as cricket is a religion in India, we are fanatical about which varieties rule the roost. There is the greener and sweeter langra, fragrant and colorful kesar, sugar infused badami and luscious dasheri. Calm, composed neighbors transform into boisterous rowdy connoisseurs staking their life on the superior taste of their own favorites. Although Alphonso is the king, Banginapalli is a personal treasure.
Indian cinema and more specifically films in the south have associated mangoes as the fruit of fertility. A wife holding a raw mango signals the child in her womb. Mangoes are also infinitely more delicious when they are stolen. So it came as no surprise when a demure woman like my mother encouraged us to steal mangoes during a visit to the Vaitheeshwaran temple. Mangoes are also consumed with an arduous fervor since they are available for a very short span. Some of us watch the climatic activity of the “mango” regions with nail biting nervousness, hoping nature does not wreck the years produce.
As an immigrant, every summer I gaze wistfully at the mangoes stifled with styrofoam wrapping nestling in their crates. Images of stacked, yellow, ripe heavenly smelling mangoes flash before my mind. Despite my better judgment, I pick one up hoping to taste the divinity and each year I hang my mouth in disappointment. Some talk about culture, sniff about fashion and snot about cuisine, but for me, mangoes are the hefty price we pay as immigrants. After two decades, the doors are creaking to let the Alphonso in but it will be a while before we have any real choice.
Over the years I have realized that there is a simple yet significant way to explain the exquisite, delicious, layered nuances of the Indian cuisine. Just hand them a ripe mango and sit back sporting a smug smile. Watch with pure discernment as their pupils dilate with the explosion of flavors on every bite of this fleshy fruit. It is the king of fruits and the only proper way to pay obeisance is to let the juices drool.
Meera R. Corera is a columnist focusing on her dual passions — food and travel. A voracious reader, she also writes about the immigration melodrama, cinema and parenting woes. Tweets at @meeraramanathan and blogs at Lost in Thought.