Real Food Encyclopedia | Mangoes
Cultivated and revered in India since at least 2,000 BCE, the mango’s exact point of origin is likely to encompass Bangladesh and Burma to the east, according to many historians.
For millennia, the mango has been a vital cultural and religious symbol in India. Traveling Buddhist monks – the likely mango Johnny Appleseeds throughout eastern Asia – noted that the Buddha (who taught primarily in northeastern India) was gifted a mango grove in 500 BCE as a place for meditation.
The mango tree worked its way into the friezes of a Buddhist stupa (a holy site) built in Bharhut, India in 100 BCE.
The mango is a symbol of love in Vedic mythology. Surya Bai, the daughter of the sun, became a golden lotus so she could escape an evil sorceress. The King fell in love with the lotus, so the sorceress burnt the flower into ashes. The ashes transformed into a mango tree, from which Surya appears, and as the story goes, the two lived happily ever after.
The Portuguese (from their outpost in Goa, on India’s west coast ) brought the mango to Africa in the 16th century, and then on to Brazil in the 18th century, around the same time it arrived in Barbados, Jamaica and other parts of the West Indies. It would be another hundred years – probably late 1800s – before the mango would debut in Florida, Hawai’i and southern California.
Fun Facts about Mangoes:
- Officially recognized as the national fruit of both India and Pakistan, the mango is known as the “king of fruit” in both countries.
- In 2010, Bangladesh officially recognized the mango tree as the national tree.
- In 2006, the George W. Bush administration lifted a 17-year-long import ban on Indian mangoes. The first shipment, which included the famed Alphonso variety, made its debut in the spring of 2007.
- In 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to pave the way for imports of Pakistani mangoes. The ban was lifted, but the costs of shipping and irradiating (required by law), made mangoes from south Asia prohibitively expensive, dashing many mango dreams.
- Coral Gables, Florida is home to an International Mango Festival. It’s held at the world renowned Fairchild Tropical Gardens where more than 500 varieties of mango are grown.
What to Look for When Buying Mangoes
Like the plum, cherry and olive, the mango is a drupe – a fleshy fruit with a thin skin and a pit (which contains the seed). Ranging in size from four ounces to two pounds, the mango also varies in shape, from big and bulbous to slender and kidney-esque. They come in various shades of red, orange, yellow and green, and color is no indicator of ripeness.
When shopping, look for mangoes with leathery smooth skin (like a purse), not leathery wrinkled skin (like someone who’s spent too much time in the sun). Black spots are okay, likely the result of sap leaking from the stem, but do make sure there’s nothing squishy or moldy. Take a pass on a mango that smells sour rather than sweet (mangoes do ferment as they age).
A ripe and ready-to-eat mango will yield to thumb pressure, and it should smell fragrant.
Sustainability of Mangoes
Conventional mangoes rank 40 (out of 48) on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a list the group created to call out produce with the highest pesticide load. This is a relatively low pesticide load that earned mangoes a spot on the “Clean Fifteen” list; 78 percent of mango samples EWG tested contained no detectable pesticide residues.
But the commercial mango in American supermarkets is an import item, so it comes with a heavier carbon footprint associated with shipping. It’s also subject to USDA regulations requiring pest control, either through a hot water treatment or radiation. The FDA requires all irradiated mangoes to be labeled, something to watch for in the produce section.
Since 2010, Whole Foods Market, along with NGO partners Fair Trade USA and Technoserve, has offered certified Fair Trade mangoes from Haiti. The stores are selling a mix of both organic and conventional mangoes.
The mango is a fruit of summer, regardless where it grows. In India, mango season is officially recognized as 100 days long, from late March through June. When International Mango Festival goers gather in south Florida next month, the local mango season will be in full swing; typically it runs from late May or early June until September.
The bulk of US mango imports come from Mexico, the balance coming from Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Guatemala and Haiti.
Do not refrigerate mangoes! Keep them at room temperature. If you only want to eat half a mango, cut and score the remaining half, remove from the skin and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a few days.
Cooking with Mangoes
Pro Tip: Learning how to properly cut a mango is essential to maximizing mango euphoria.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, start by eating a mango as is, standing over the sink, or in the bathtub.
One of the easiest ways to get your mango on is by pureeing it. Blend with a banana, berries, plain yogurt and fresh mint (or any combination of these) to make a killer smoothie or lassi.
Mango salsa is another great way to use it; chop it up and mix with classic salsa ingredients like cilantro, red onion, lime juice and garlic. Serve it atop rice or your favorite grain, alongside grilled fish, shrimp or chicken, on a chip-and-dip platter or on a bed of greens.
You can purée peeled mango and freeze for later. Mangoes are also often dried.
If you’re looking for a source of Vitamin A and its antioxidant companion betacarotene, you’re in the right place. The mango is also rich in Vitamin C and a respectable source of fiber as well as potassium – in fact, it actually beats the banana in the potassium contest.
The mango has been an important remedy in ayurvedic and other traditional schools of medicine. The bark, gum, leaves, pit and flower have been used for thousands of years to treat sundry ailments, from diarrhea to rheumatism, asthma to scabies. A paper published in 2010 in the Pharmacognosy Review highlights various studies on the potential antioxidative effects of the fruit, the potential for treating diabetes with the leaves and bark and showing great promise as a “phytomedicine.” The authors recommend that “more clinical trials be conducted to support its therapeutic use.”
A note of caution: Keep in mind that the mango is related to poison ivy and poison sumac, and the fruit, particularly with skin attached, may cause contact dermatitis, or worse. The skin of the fruit contains urushiol, a compound that can cause a rash, swelling of the lips or anaphylaxis. Seek medical attention if you experience a reaction after eating mango.