Are you one of the fortunate kids who grew up somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn? Likely visited groves of mango trees or grew up with one in your grandparent’s backyard? My mother grew up in a small village, in a backward district of Munger called Begusarai, in Bihar, India. It’s likely you won’t find it on the map, it would fall somewhere between a village and a big marshland with houses strewn about. My fondest and earliest summer memories are from here, from the house my grandparents lived in. They didn’t have electricity, or if they did, I don’t remember it. Nani (mum’s mum) had several hand-held bamboo fans with long handles that she would use to fan us whilst watching us eat. There were no tables or chairs, just a large courtyard with a modest kitchen where we would eat the most scrumptious thali-meals adorned with macher jhol (fish stew), mutton or chicken curry, lots of sautéed/ curried vegetables and mangoes. Always mangoes.
Although I can’t credit my love for cooking to her, she was quite possibly the most ingenious cook I’ve met, maybe all mother’s mothers are. Something about that time and that era. She had a small wooden pantry for a refrigerator that she would keep under lock and key at all times. Meats would always be fresh from the butcher, vegetables haggled for every day from the street hawkers that came by. She had a sickle for a knife, a stone slab for a grinder and a perspicacity for flavors.
While Nani would prep lunch, I was tasked with walking all over Nana (my mother’s father)’s back to help relieve his aches and pains. If I plucked his white hair, I was handsomely rewarded with chump change. There were two big mango and papaya trees in the backyard, their heavy branches drooping over the roof. In the mornings and evenings, when it was cooler, Nana and I would stand on the terrace, plucking mangoes or using a long wooden pole to knock them down. They were full grown lush trees, their palette blending the dark emerald leaves with the pale yellows and oranges of the stone fruit, with splashes of hectic red thrown in for good measure. The green unripe ones were a class apart – because we were allowed to eat them raw sprinkled with salt, lime, and chillis. Mangoes were breakfast, lunch, and dinner; mangoes were everything, and much to my father’s chagrin, they were everywhere. I remember sleeping with sticky fingers and a sticky mouth on more than one occasion.
Every night, Nani would tuck us under gauzy mosquito-nets tied to four-poster beds, doing her best to keep the blood-suckers away with her filigree armor of mesh. Afterwards, she would unleash her treasure trove of gothic fairy tales that she spun softly in soothing voices every night. A different one each time, and each time I would fall asleep before the climactic end.
My summer memories are laced with sights and sounds and smells of that house, always invoking a sweet, ripe, slightly tangy memory. Mangoes, as is true for most of us, hold a special place in my heart, but more so because it takes me back to being a sticky, greedy, carefree child sitting in a shaded courtyard in my grandparent’s ancient house. A happier time.
Needless to say, cooking with mangoes has become an integral part of summer. Although mangoes are available in the supermarkets all year around, I find it imperative to celebrate seasonal fruits and vegetables when they’re in season – when they’re truly growing as nature intended them to. It also makes the anticipation that much special, a time I look forward to all year.
Desserts with mangoes are a given in the summer – so when I had all the necessary ingredients in the pantry to make tiramisu and banana bread pudding, I couldn’t help but marry the two and create a Mango-misu. This dessert looks like a trifle, tastes like a dream and is super simple to make. Trust me, you will love the light, fluffy texture layered with mango pudding and creamy zabaglione. Sometimes I throw in crumbled graham crackers to provide additional texture but it is perfect as is.