As COVID-19 fears, lockdown dull mango's sheen in Tamil Nadu, foodies recount fruit's indelible place in state's cuisine
Enthusiasts in Tamil Nadu find themselves adjusting to the new normal, as the joy of handpicking produce is lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and they settle instead for fond recollections of their favourite fruit and its varied uses in the state’s layered cuisine.
The arrival of the year’s first crate of Naduchalai mangoes signals not just the onset of mango season but also inherited family traditions for Chennai-based South Indian food historian and consultant chef Shri Bala. Her “pickling calendar” has come to be as defined as the four phases of the yield of her favourite cultivars of mangoes from the district of Salem in Tamil Nadu. The turn of mango season seems, in nature’s wondrous way, to set in like clockwork.
Shri says, “It begins with the sour, more fibrous Naduchalai at the beginning of March and then within a week or so – occasionally in conjunction – the Gundu arrives. Sometimes they’re delicious and other times very sour. Around 15 April, when you’re ushering in the New Year, you get the Malgova – often referred to as the king of fruit in Tamil Nadu – which is very sweet and comes till May. By the end of May, you’ll get the Neelam, which is very small and rough-skinned.” Other breeds that go down well in Tamil Nadu’s mango-loving populace’s books, according to Shri, are the Raspuri from Bangalore; the Banganapalli from Andhra; and the Rumani.
For most aficionados in the state, the act of consuming a mango is intrinsically connected to memory, nostalgia and an engagement with all the senses. Chennai-based cookbook author Sabita Radhakrishna, says, “The best way to eat a mango is to cut it into three segments – with the centre seed and two “cheeks” on either side. You need to mess around with your fingers, reverse it and saturate yourself.”
Chennai-based COO of Hanu Reddy Residences, Nirupama Reddy, has spearheaded “mango tourism” at family-owned Hanu Reddy Raghava farm located in Guduvanchery, about 40 kilometres from Chennai. “People become like children when they can touch, handpick and pluck fruit off the tree. We explain how composting happens and a lot of them see it as a way to teach their kids about organic and sustainable farming.”
The olfactory element when buying mangoes cannot be overlooked but given the uncertainty around how the novel coronavirus is transmitted, many such as Sabita are wary. “We usually buy mangoes by smelling them. Of late, I’ve been hearing that this isn’t safe.”
Touch and feel, says Shri, is crucial to the three important branches of pickling, which are vendhaya mangai pickled with fenugreek powder; thokku that showcases Kili Mookku (parrot beak) mangoes, grated and sprinkled with red chilli powder; and avakka mangai where the Rumani is pickled with mustard. She adds, “We have to handpick about three-four kilos of tender mangoes for vadu mangai and avakka, but this year I avoided going to the shops.”
S Srinivasan, President, Chennai Fruits Commission Agents Association, mentions that in peak season Chennai alone sees a daily turnover of about 400 tonnes, which has now been reduced to 100-120 tonnes a day. The lockdown, he adds, has made it difficult for trucks from other states to come in and sell but he insists that the demand is as high. He states that small-time operators, such as auto-rickshaw drivers, are now hiring trucks and going to farms and procuring 100-200 kilograms and selling directly to consumers. Dharmapuri, Dindigul, Krishnagiri, Salem, Namakkal and Dharapuram are the top-producing mango pockets in the state.
Chef Koushik S, best known in Chennai as The Mad Chef is Culinary Operations Officer at Eatitude. A conversation with him eases one into the volatile nature of mangoes and the two broad variants – maambazham or ripe fruit and mangai or green mango – that are incorporated into a diverse range of recipes.
He begins where most good things in any self-respecting Tamilian household start – a robust rasam that can be made with both varieties. Mango – green and ripe – is used in sambar all the time. Regular vathal kuzhambu gets a lift with sundried slices of green mango and lemon rice is given a miss for mangai saadam featuring grated green mangoes.
As far as daily curries go, maambazham puli kuzhambu showcases ripe mango, cooked with tamarind water, asafoetida and a pinch of jaggery. Curd-based dishes more kuzhambu and pulisseri fulfil on the refreshing front.
Beverages too, see the ingenious addition of the fruit. Mangai more, says Koushik, “uses chopped pieces of mangai with green chilli, ginger and mint leaves that are ground into a paste and added to buttermilk.” Maambazham paal, he mentions, is a tribute to the old wives’ belief that, “when you eat a ripe mango it produces a lot of heat and milk helps to cool one down. Chunks of mango are muddled into cold milk with cardamom and had village-style in Tirunelveli.”
Shifting gear to lesser-known jewels, he touches upon mangai meen kuzhambu – a favourite of the Muslim community where “tiny sea fish – usually nethili – is prepared with unripe mango.” He also highlights a mango version of the Anglo-Indian railway mutton curry.
Tirunelveli-based cookbook author Hazeena Seyad brings heirloom recipes cherished by the Ravuthar community – to which she belongs – to the forefront. “We make a tamarind-based mutton curry called kaaei chaare with “country” vegetables such as raw plantain, white pumpkin, brinjal, drumstick and unripe mango.” Hazeena cites some other unconventional uses of raw mango in the small seaside town of Kayalpattinam. “Kayalpattinnam paruppu is a dal and raw mango preparation that is finally sprinkled with dried Maldives fish. In the same town, they add raw mango to a mutton curry, which is known as kalari aanam.”
Chitra Ramu, owner of Aadhirai restaurant in Chennai mentions how in Chettinad, where she hails from, it is mangai that is usually used. Her community also cuts mooku mangai into long pieces and they are salted overnight and dried for use as vathal over a year. Mandi, a dish named for the rice-rinsed water in which a mix of rustic vegetables such as raw banana, brinjal, banana stem, avarakkai, beans, carrots and fresh or dried mango are cooked, is another Chettinad speciality.
Independent chef, food stylist and brand consultant Harish Rao throws light on the cuisine of Thanjavur, born during the rule of the Maratha kings, and curries such as drumstick, raw jackfruit and mango baddishinga va phansachibyachi koot that are a byproduct. A burnt raw mango chutney that accompanies raw banana dumpling vazhai shunti is a noteworthy gem.
Shri delivers historical insights and says, “In Sangam literature, if a king invites a delegate it’s called mukani – mu meaning three and kani meaning fruit. Mangoes, jackfruit and banana make up this trinity.” Koushik pays tribute to the concept with a playful molecular gastronomic dessert. Mango ice cream quenelles are laid on a bed of banana crumble soil, topped with a sprinkling of jackfruit halwa and encircled by coconut milk and agar agar noodles.
As for more conventional desserts, he reels off a long list beginning with a Tamil Brahmin sweet version of pongal known as maambazham akkaraiivadasal. It is maambazham kolakkatai, however, that is close to his heart. “My grandmum used to boil ripe mangoes till they attained a purée consistency and cooked them down with grated coconut and cardamom powder till it formed a filling. This was then stuffed inside a rice dumpling and served on top of coconut milk.”
On the more unusual side of the spectrum, Hazeena highlights kathirikai mangai paavu. Brinjal and raw mango are boiled together to a slightly mashed up consistency in a paavu or sugar syrup, ensuring that the brinjal seeds are still whole. The Ravuthars also draw the sap of the palm tree (known as padanni) and make mangai paavu using raw mangoes and grated coconut that are stirred consistently with jaggery to a semi-solid form.
While all may not be lost this year, the prospect of mangoes in lockdown has hampered rituals that are observed with an almost religious reverence. Shri recounts the recipes for pickles that are passed on from generation to generation, with each type having a dedicated jaadi (ceramic container).
“Not many make these things anymore but whoever does, will miss the act this year.” She jokes about having to maintain levels of hygiene that are triple those practised as COVID-19 preventative measures while pickling and says, with a chuckle, “Once you cut the mangoes and remove the moisture, you don’t make any physical contact other than with a wooden spoon – it’s like social distancing.”
Jehan Nizar is a freelance lifestyle features writer, food blogger and core faculty at The Asian College of Journalism, Chennai
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