There are many things I suck at, and even more things I don’t even attempt. But there is one thing that I unabashedly claim to be -pretty- good at. And that is eating a mango. Oh yes.
My major feat is to eat it without needing a plate or a knife, though a spoon can be useful, and to do this methodically and without any spills or thrills, and hardly even any mango on my hands. Just a calm, zen-like experience of the texture and the taste. The description, and in some ways the actual process, is quite graphic: proceed with caution.
The apparatus mainly consists of a ripe, non-Alphonso mango, also called “choosnewala aam” or “mango that is to be sucked”, and a good, clean pair of hands. These are naturally less firm — the mangoes, I mean, not the hands. The hands should be firm, but soft, if that makes sense. Or rather they should be sure, but soft — and are not the best mangoes for slicing. They are the non-hoity-toity varieties, each with its own unique properties, that allow you to get close to the true essence of sensual mangoness.
The first rule is that the mango should be ripe. This is indicated by the mango being soft to touch, the skin just starting to get wrinkled, and the fruit being deeply fragrant. The mango should be softened before eating. To do this, hold the mango in both hands, press in with the right thumb at different spots, softening the fruit, then rotate the mango to the right (or the left) slightly, so that you can press in with the right thumb on a different portion. The right thumb gets to move up, down and all around, always pressing in. You will feel the flesh loosen inside the skin, you will feel the thumb pressing all the way against the seed even. This is good. This means you are loosening it all the way inside. Loosening the flesh close to the stem end can be fraught, because the juice can start flowing out from near the stem, but should be carefully attempted nonetheless. Don’t forget to enjoy this feeling of semi-firmness giving way to softness under the pressure of your thumb — it is the first of the sensory pleasures of this method of mango-eating.
While doing this, if you can avoid thinking of the salacious policeman in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, who mentally compares Ammu’s breasts to mangoes, that is an added bonus.
So far, so good. All good Indians probably know how to manage this, including the “don’t think of Ammu” bit. The next step may be to soften another mango, and then another, and so on, and finally get the juice of all of them in a bowl (getting your hands fully mangofied in the process), then chilling the bowl in the fridge, or possibly even doing weird things like blending it with milk and sugar and removing the fibrous bits, and then finally serving it to other people.
Or the next step may be to just eat the damn thing, all by your little self. This latter option is of interest here. That’s the bit where my special calm, methodical, zen-like business comes in. For this option it is good to go with a chilled mango to begin with, but it’s not critical. First you remove the little black stem end and discard it. Then you use your mouth and start sucking. (At this point, please don’t let your stray thoughts wander in the direction of the Ammu analogy being rather apt.) Pay attention to the taste, pay attention to the texture — how it is watery at first, and slowly gets thick and pulpy. As you suck, the tiny opening you made naturally starts to widen. At around the point that you can’t suck anymore, the opening will be just perfectly wide enough for you to get the seed out with one hand (usually the right hand for right-handed people), with the skin still in the other, like a container with mango pulp in it.
If one has done a thorough job of softening the mango with the right thumb, the seed will come out with only a modest amount of flesh on it. Hold on to the skin with the one hand, polish off what is on the seed with your lips, tongue and teeth (I think I mean the mouth), and discard the seed. This is the part where it is easy to panic and feel the need of a plate. Stay calm and know that you can handle the seed with one hand. In fact, the seed doesn’t even have to touch the palm of the hand, the fingers are sufficient. After all, you are calling in the services of the trusty mouth as well. If you manage this, you are well on your way to saying “Look ma, no plate!” Once you are done with the seed, if the mango is large, it may be good to scoop out the pulp with a spoon and eat it that way. If the mango is small, it is perfectly possible and strongly recommended that you dip into the skin container with your mouth, and eat the pulp directly, gradually widening the opening as necessary, almost splitting the skin in two, but not quite.
Well okay, at this point, I concede that if the mango is large, you may indeed want to tear the skin into two halves and work on it one half at a time, necessitating the use of a plate to keep the second half on, but even then, it can be done such that only the external part of the skin touches the plate, but not the internal surface where the pulp resides. This means that the pulp doesn’t get smeared on to the plate, ensuring a clean plate and no pulp wastage. But this is needed only for the very largest of mangoes, i.e., those that come from Mexico, taste really sweet, but are somehow one-dimensional and not truly flavourful, and which have possibly had encounters with chemicals and wacky hormone-like things in their painful lives. Sorry to be cynical, but there we are. The main issue seems to be that an Indian mango dares to be have complex notes beyond just plain “sweet”, and knows that size does not matter, whereas a Mexican mango feels obliged to be massive and 100% sweet. But we can peddle these and other stereotypes another time.
Whether you work with the entire skin (the no-plate option) or one half of it, turn the skin inside out, and work on it with your mouth. (Yes, lips, tongue and teeth.) As with many fruits, the sweetest part is near the skin, so be thorough. And as my mother theorises, getting the skin in contact with the tongue brings the real taste home, as the saliva and taste buds get to do their thing. (I said it would be graphic.) Additionally, I can’t help thinking that having the fruit and skin so close to the nose means that the olfactory receptors are activated in addition to the gustatory ones, creating the climax of the mango symphony. It should be said that the true pleasure comes from paying attention. Wandering minds don’t get to enjoy mango greatness. I said it was zen-like, didn’t I?
Once you are done with the entire inner surface of the skin, well, that about brings us to the end of that. Don’t forget to sigh with pleasure. Uttering something like, “Man!” is perfectly legitimate as well. Finally, before one goes out into the public domain, it is generally a good idea to remember to wipe clean the yellow-orange border of mango that forms around the lips.