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Mangoes: Peaches of the Tropics

by Kara Stern

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Winter Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(4) page(s): 25 and 26

The mango, Mangifera, belongs to the cashew family or Anarcdiacae and is often called the ‘peach of the tropics.’ It is the fruit of an evergreen tree prominent in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia. Species of it have been cultivated and praised since ancient times, perhaps for some four thousand years. Mangoes spread through the region probably by Buddhist monks from India or Southeast Asia, some of whom calling it by its Sudanese name, mangga. Portuguese and Spanish traders carried it to South America, the Pacific Islands, and to Hawaii. Then, this ‘heavenly fruit,’ another of its names, came to the America’s circa the 1700's.

Little is said about the mango in early China, though everyone does believe it was in use, but perhaps only for medicinal purposes. It was not until Tang times (618 - 907 CE) that the mango was mentioned in Chinese literature. It was written about often in Sung (960 - 1297 CE) and later times. By the Yuan Dynasty (1280 - 1368 CE), this fruit was popular for eating and healing. Today China produces more than a quarter of a million tons of mango, most consumed fresh and in cooking, some used when dried, and certainly some used in treating various conditions. One popular culinary use has been when ripe to use it in pudding-like dishes. It was and is used stir-fried as a green fruit as well as when semi-ripe and ripe. The Chinese have and still adore it in stew-type dishes, made into jams-like dishes, and they use it in sauces and soups.

Mango trees grow to forty, even sixty feet tall. They flourish outdoors or indoors and they grow well at various latitudes, in loose soil, and even in sandy loam. Because they are sensitive to cold weather, their habitat is limited. Damage can occur when the thermometer drops near forty degrees Fahrenheit. And, at temperatures near that, the tree often fails to produce flowers.

The tree is an aromatic evergreen that bears slender, pointed leaves that turn a dark glossy-green as they mature. In season, clusters of small pink flowers decorate the tree, then the yellow, green, or red-purple fruit colors it. Each fruit can weigh as much as three pounds. They vary from oval to oblong in shape. Wanting ripe fruit? It is a process that takes four to six years after the first planting and four to five months from blossom to fruit. The fruit becomes soft, juicy, sweet, and utterly delicious.

When picking, mangoes should be washed immediately to avoid damage to the skin; not washing can lead to premature rotting. After picking, if left at room temperature, usually for a week, the mango ripens nicely. A popular way to speed the ripening process is to wrap each individual fruit in paper. You know when a mango is ripe when the skin yields slightly under pressure. What is different with this fruit is that the scent radiates in intensity outward from the stem.

When purchasing a mango, search for firm fruit with skin intact. Color is not always a good indication of flavor and sweetness. Do look for traces of bruising or wrinkling, they indicate over-ripe fruit which can have a woody texture and not be too sweet. The interior of a mango has a large flat seed with a thick outer covering enclosed in tender, juicy, yellow and orange pulp. It is hard to know when tough fibers have taken root in the pulp, but young fruit rarely has this problem.

Not all mangoes look alike. After years of cultivation, five hundred to a thousand varieties exist. They deviate from one another in shape, size, texture and taste. Some ripen in early December, others in late April. Some are mild, a few have sensitive skin. The fruit can be large or little, green and ripe or green and far from it. They might be round or oval, flat or round, reddish, orange or yellow on the interior, and any combination or a single color green to darker purple on the outside. All are an fine sources of Vitamins A, C, and beta-carotene, many are high in potassium and fiber, and most are fairly low in calories. An average mango has just over a hundred calories and a gram of fat.

The Chinese and other people prepare and eat mangos several ways. When fresh and very ripe, the flesh can be spooned out of the skin; they can also be cut in half, that is on each side of the fuzzy pit. Take each half and dice it to but not through the skin, then turn the skin-side out before cutting the squares away from it. There is an illustration in the hard copy of this issue.

Mangoes are popular in soups and stir-fry dishes and in dessert-type items. Should you want to pre-prepare yours, soak the cut pieces in a dilute solution of lemon or lime juice to preserve color and texture. Mangoes can be sliced or diced and sun-dried, they can be grated when green, and they can be preserved in sugar and used for snacks or seasonings. Dried pieces can be made into a sweet or a sour mango powder. All are used in a plethora of ways.

The significance of the mango, also called the ‘queen of the tropics,’ varies with cultures and time. Early Sanskrit poets spoke of mango buds to enhance the voice. Some cultures, Chinese among them, have noted that the bark and the dried leaves alleviate diarrhea, the dried flowers are valuable as a diuretic. We have never read about a Chinese use for the vocal cords; have you?

In China today, the Mangifera indica is the most used species. You might guess from that name that India is a major producer and early source of this fruit. You would be correct because India produces almost two-thirds of the world’s crop, and may have given it to the Chinese. Called man guo, the Chinese believe it neither hot nor cold, though a few do call it cool. All say it regulates qi or vital energy, helps circulation, and eases pain. Many warn that eating too many might increase nephritic problems. If you suffer from them, they indicate that it causes other harm. That said, do not eat too many at any one time. Chinese medicinal recommendations include that those with eczema should use some cut up a,d soaked in water, using the liquid two or three times a day on all affected areas.

The small mango, Magifera silvatica, which the Chinese call bian tou or 'flat peach,' even xia mang guo; is recommended by Traditional Chinese Medicine personnel for hernia of the small intestine. For that, they cook it in rice wine and water and say to take a small drink each evening. Both varieties are believed to enter the lung, spleen, and stomach channels and be valuable for treating coughs, vomiting, and indigestion.

Remember, that for medicinal uses, consult your doctor. For delightful culinary uses experience its flavor with one of the following recipes and many others found in the Chinese culinary literature.
Chicken Stir-fry with Mango
1 almost ripe mango, peeled and cut into thick slices
4 ounces boneless skinless chicken breast, sliced thinly
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 green chili, seeded and sliced thinly
1 red chilli, seeded and sliced thinly
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
2 Tablespoons corn oil
dash of salt and white pepper
1 Tablespoon rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch with a like amount of cold water
1 teaspoon bean paste
1 Tablespoon thin soy
1 teaspoon sugar
1. Mix mango, chilies and sesame oil and set aside.
3. Saute garlic in he corn oil then add chicken and mango mixture and fry until the meat almost loses it pink color.
3. Add salt and pepper and rice wine, stir well and then remove from the pan and serve.
Braised Eggplant with Mango
2 almost ripe mangoes
1 or 2 thin eggplants, cut into thin strips
1 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
dash of ground white pepper
2 teaspoons sesame paste mixed with one tablespoon of hot water
2 Tablespoon water chestnut or lotus flour mixed with the same amount of cold water
1 teaspoon chopped coriander
1. Cut the mango flesh into thick slices.
2. Mix eggplant with sugar and marinate for fifteen minutes.
3. Heat oil and add eggplants and fry for two or three minutes, then add soy sauce and sesame oil and the pepper and continue to fry for another five minutes.
4. Add sesame paste and mangos and stir-fry one minute then add flour mixture and cook another minute, then remove to a serving bowl. Put coriander on top and serve.

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