By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Midsummer Memories Of Mangoes, Monkeys And Mysore

It's the middle of May, and the mango season has just started in India.  It will be in full swing within a couple of months.  So here's an article I wrote about mangoes nearly 30 years ago --  and it looks and sounds so fresh and true, as if I wrote it just this morning!


Glossary(In same order as in text)

British days  --  When India was just a colony of the British Empire, before it became independent in 1947.

Bungalow  --  In the British regime, the usual residence of senior officers  --   a mini-mansion with very spacious rooms and a vast surrounding compound where there were luxurious lawns and an amazing variety of trees (originally built for Englishmen, but later on accommodating Indians also) .

Jaamun  --  a delicious native Indian fruit  --   somewhat resembling grapes, but violet in color and having an unusual tongue-tingling taste.  Thought to be very close to the hearts of tree-bound monkeys in wild woodlands.

Rakesh Sharma  --  The first Indian spaceman, who has figured earlier in this column  please see Spaceviews And Skyviews (14 Nov. 2012), and India Looks Lovely (15 Nov. 2012).

Aam-paappad  --  In Hindi, 'aam' means mango, and 'paappad' is a paper-thin disk of dried salty paste made of soaked and ground cereals --  always plain in South India, often with shredded pepper and/or spices added in the North.  Meant to be toasted or fried for eating.  Aam-paappad is a dried sheet of mango pulp, usually just one or two millimeteres thick, and cut out as small rectangles.  Sometimes it's much thicker, and looks almost like a thin pocket book. To be eaten as it is, not processed further.

Aavakkaai  -- 'aava' is mustard, and 'kaai' is unripe fruit, in Telugu, which is the native language of Andhra Pradesh.

Andhra Pradesh  --  A State in South India, where the midsummer temperature is extremely high : not an ideal weather for gobbling up red-hot red-chillis!

Evening News, New Delhi
18 May 1984
Mango, mango!

OFFICIALLY the mango season has arrived all over India along with the midsummer  heat waves, but one hardly sees any juicy mangoes in the Capital's markets.

And what one takes home for the kids in the evening is only a handful of the fruit, never a basketful or even a big bagful, with the mango price competing with the mercury level to beat all previous records.

I'm ever so fond of telling you about the day-dreams I used to indulge in when I was a child or a young man, but I don't recall dreaming about mangoes in my childhood.  I just used to eat them by the dozen every day during the season!

They say the forbidden fruit tastes the best.  I don't know anything about that, because I never had to steal any fruit.

My father was an Executive Engineer in the British days, and we always lived in a big bungalow in some district town or other, with not less than 15 or 20 acres of fruit-laden woodlands surrounding it.

There were always huge baskets of mangoes in the house, but I never cared for their luscious contents.  I preferred to collect a few chosen friends from the school and directly raid by father's gardens.

We would dexterously climb up the mango,  jaamun and other trees like monkeys and, sitting on the highest branches, bite into the fruit.

We would imagine that we were members of the Swiss Family Robinson, and fruit never tasted better than on a tree-top, I can tell you!

Talking of mango trees, have you noticed that they are the shadiest ones in India?

Travelling across the vast plains of our country in long-distance trains, I've often wished I could get down at some small wayside station and just relax in the cool shade of the lush mango groves!

*               *               *

I WAS delighted to hear cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma tell a vast TV audience from the Salyut space station recently that the flat mango cakes (aam paappad) specially prepared for this mission by the food research institute in Mysore, was very much liked by his Russian friends on board.

I don't really know what special research efforts are required to make aam-paappad consumable in space.  But down here on terra firma, my grandmother, who was no research scholar, used to prepare the tastiest variety you could wish for.

Long before the flat succulent cakes she would spread on a piece of cloth on the terrace had dried under the hot sun, they were all gone, with we children hovering around like hungry monkeys!

*               *               *

I SUPPOSE nobody in the world would possibly like sour grapes, but we Indians do love sour mangoes, duly pickled. 

What I like best by way of pickled mango is a very special recipe of the South called aavakkaai.  It's not a product of the food experts in Mysore, but that of the whole culture of Andhra Pradesh. 

It's a genuine gastronomic explosive which foreigners and even most Indians would be well advised to approach with caution  --  green, sour mangoes cut in large pieces along with the kernel, and preserved in a vitriolic lotion made of powdered mustard, salt and the hottest roasted red chillies you can imagine! 

Even seasoned native connoisseurs of aavakkaai in Andhra Pradesh consume huge quantities of distilled butter to off-set the convulsive effects of this particular brand of TNT.

I wonder how our Russian friends in space would react if next time their Indian colleague produced a jar of hot-'n'-sour aavakkaai  instead of soft-'n'-sweet aam-paappad!   Do you hear me, Rakesh?


PostScript, 2013
My Mysore Connections

The food research institution mentioned by me in this article was the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, which is a nice and hilly South Indian city where I had grown up during the first five years of my life.  And CFTRI is a constituent unit of CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi), of which I was the Financial  Adviser for five years from 1983 to '88.  As a tough and highly inquisitive fundmaster, I wasn't exactly a bosom-friend of the Institute's aggressive Director, Dr. Amla;  but after I wrote this article in my column in the evening paper in New Delhi, his attitude towards Finance did turn far more friendly!

Incidentally, amla happens to be the Hindi name for a sour fruit-like Indian vegetable, usually consumed only in the form of hot pickle --  and, like the jaamun fruit, it has also a tongue-tingling taste!

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