Mango season has just started, the first Mango Festival was celebrated in the Mediterranean coastal town of Alanya. This sounds like fake news, as mango was practically unknown in this country. The only mangoes that appeared on posh market shelves used to come from afar, usually lacking in flavor as they were picked quite unripe with a high price tag unmatching this flavor flaw. But it is not fake news, we are talking about the domestic mango season, the harvest of locally grown mangoes. The mango fruit is the national fruit of India, Pakistan and the Philippines, and the mango tree is the symbol of Bangladesh. It may soon be the symbol of our southern provinces.
The mango harvest has just started in the south, especially in Alanya and Gazipaşa provinces, and will continue until the New Year. Exotic fruits like mango are usually quite expensive, but once upon a time, bananas used to be an expensive novelty, its price equaling that of meat, now they are abundant and affordable, and there are already three different banana varieties accepted in the Geographical Indication List, the foremost being the Anamur banana. Tropical fruits such as dragon fruit, passion fruit and lychee are now becoming common. Avocado, which people could not figure out how to eat until very recently, is now very much sought after, partly because of diet fads, but it is also adopted to the Turkish meze table, with creative avocado mezes becoming commonplace. Needless to say, the Alanya avocado made it to the Geographical Indication list of the province.
Mango might be one of the foremost fruits that became the hero of the weirdest stories. Queen Victoria of England and Ireland, Empress of the United Kingdom and India, died before she could eat a mango, despite her wish to taste the fruit at least once in her life, at least according to the movie “Victoria & Abdul.” Despite being the Empress of India, Her Majesty could never set foot in the country but learned a great deal about the culture through her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim, whom the Queen called “munshi,” an Urdu term for a teacher. Abdul told the Queen about this very special fruit called mango, describing it as the queen of fruits. Mango was ordered for the Empress, but the delivery could not withstand the six-week sea voyage, arriving in an “off” state, as Abdul calls.
In history, mango may have been the desired fruit for the noble and the elite, but strangely it also became a cult fruit for the masses in China. Have you ever heard of Mao and the mango mania in the late 1960s? How did the Chinese, who did not know the mango at all, turn the mango fruit into a cult? The mango madness of the masses started in 1968 when the Pakistani foreign minister visited Mao and presented him with a case of mangoes. There was turmoil in China at the time, the Red Guards, consisting of students and youth loyal to Mao and their mission to spread the Red Revolution, were in revolt, and Mao was using the workers to suppress them. In Chinese culture, re-gifting is widely practiced, it is not a shameful act, on the contrary, it shows the value given to the other party. Mao presents or bluntly said re-gifts the mangoes to the workers’ representatives and the workers regard it as a holy relic, starting a mango cult. Mangoes were placed in glass cases nestled on silk pillows to be paid respect by long queues of visiting workers. A few were preserved in formaldehyde to gain eternal life. One was boiled and its holy juice was given by spoonfuls to grateful workers. Beeswax replicas were made to be placed in shrine-like niches. Depictions of crowds carrying a tray of mango began to appear everywhere. Eventually, the mango mania faded, but the phenomenon still remains as the weirdest case in the history of the fruit.
Mango is used in very interesting ways around the world. In India, unripe mango is used as a vegetable in curries with lots of turmeric and ginger. The ripe one makes a delightfully refreshing lassi, a drink very similar to the Turkish yogurt drink ayran. It appears with saffron-flavored sweets and makes an amazing frozen kulfi, especially with pistachios, with which it has a natural affinity. This connection was first pointed to me by my usual guide, Harold McGee. His latest book, “Nose Dive,” is a complete guide to chefs in the world of fragrance and flavor. A few years back, when we were going to meet at a symposium, McGee asked me to bring him some early harvest pistachios. He had the samples I brought him analyzed in the laboratory and said they had a much stronger higher aroma profile than their counterparts. In the tasting notes, he stated that the early harvest pistachio is similar to that of mango. This statement opened my eyes, and it may well open up an interesting world of taste pairings for us.
Just like the avocado made its way to meze tables, we may well can adopt mango to Turkish cuisine. When we look at the taste profile, it has a resinous taste that reminds me of turpentine. The mango tree and the pistachio tree are botanically linked. Therefore, early harvest pistachio is very compatible with mango, so is wild pistachio “menengiç” or “bıttım” or wild pistachio shoot “murç,” which are all tastes used in interesting ways in regional cuisines of the country. This is also true with “sakız” aka mastic gum, which is the resin of a kind of wild pistachio tree. Sakız is one of the favorite flavorings of Turkish milk puddings and ice creams, and anything with cream, milk, or yogurt goes well with mango. Saffron also matches perfectly with mango, which leads us to saffron-spiced puddings such as zerde. All these taste combinations give me ideas. I can easily imagine a divine sakızlı muhallebi (a milk pudding with mastica) topped with thin slices of fully ripe locally grown mango or served with a mango sauce.
In quest of developing more ideas, I carried a few mangoes all the way from Alanya to Mustafa Özgüler from Orkide Patisserie in Gaziantep, famous for its pistachio-based sweet morsels, in hopes for them to come up with new creations, for instance, their delightful macaroon-like little cookies filled with ripe mango cream. Why not start our own mango mania?
For information, check the Instagram account: alanya_mangosu