The 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib once said that every mango carries the name of the person destined to eat it. As I sit expectantly in front of a plate of mangoes spread out like autumn leaves—a green-skinned Julie mango from Jamaica; a mustard-yellow Chaunsa from Pakistan; and a red Palmer from Brazil—I think of Ghalib’s words and decide that these delectable fruits are mine, all mine.
First, I try the Julie, which hides a fibrous tang behind its sweetness. Then the aromatic, silken flesh of the Chaunsa and finally the syrupy Palmer. As the yellow juice drips onto the plate, I find myself facing the quandary that plagues every mango-lover. Which variety of mango is the best?
Intent on finding the answer to this question, I decide to embark on a mango odyssey across the UK, from the market stalls of Shepherds Bush and Southall in London, all the way to Bradford.
Mangoes or aam, as they are known in Urdu and Hindi, have been grown in India for for over 4,000 years, and the country is still the one of the biggest mango producers in the world. Transported beyond India by Buddhist monks and Persian traders, new varieties of mango were grown in Kenya, Bangladesh, Congo, Trinidad, Guyana, and Egypt. However, as teacher and mango fan Mangala Nanda explains, country of origin is not always enough to demarcate one mango from another.
“It's too generic to say 'Indian' or 'Pakistani' mangoes,” she tells me. “At the risk of sounding like a mango snob, the real connoisseurs will know and reference the different mangoes by name and be able to rank them along multiple parameters.”
Parameters such as a mango’s shape, aroma, colouring, texture, and other qualities horticulturalists have used over the years to identify the fruit’s many different varieties. India is renowned for its sweet and rich Alphonso mangoes from Maharashtra and Pakistan for Anwar Ratol mangoes, which are smaller in size and originate in South Punjab. Then there are Sindhri, Madame Francique, Owais, Hamlet, and Ngowe mangoes. There is even an Aishwarya mango, named after the famed Bollywood actress.
While the first recorded mention of mangoes in Europe dates back to French-Dominican monk Friar Jordanus in 1328, it was centuries before British diners were introduced to the sweet fruit. As diaspora communities from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean settled in post-War Britain, so too did many ingredients and foods from back home—mangoes being one of them. The appetite for mangoes in the UK has since grown rapidly, with ASDA reporting a 20-percent increase in mango sales this year.
Despite the mango’s popularity in Britain, there is still much debate over which variety reigns supreme. It wasn’t until I began asking my friends about their favoured mango that I realised just how divisive the fruit could be.
“100-percent Pakistani. Is that even a question?” jokes Sabah Choudhry, a producer at British Muslim TV. “I’m not gonna lie, my answer used to be infused by the staunch Pakistani nationalism my mum put into me, until I actually tried an Indian mango and realised there wasn’t even a competition. ’Stani mangoes all the way!”
Mohammad Bilal, a mango-seller based in Southall, agrees with Choudhry. With almost eight years’ experience selling Pakistani mangoes, he has become something of a mango whisperer, with the ability to judge whether the pulp inside a fruit is ripe, just by feeling its skin. For him, it is a tussle between two Pakistani mangoes in particular.
“The Anwar Ratol is always number one, the Chaunsa is number two,” he says. “The mangoes are from paak land—pure land that is full of vitamins and minerals—so Pakistani mangoes are top class mangoes in all of the world.”
Bradford-based vegan chef Sonia Sandhu, however, tells me about her favourite Indian Alphonso mangoes that look remarkably like curvaceous fire emojis. “It’s like eating a sunset,” she says.
Nanda also sees Alphonso mangoes as superior, perhaps because of her childhood memories of eating the fruit picked straight from the tree in India.
“People will have you believe that the Langras, the Dusseras, and the Kesar mangoes are amazing,” she argues, “but nothing compares to the heady, intoxicating fragrance and the rush of joy you experience when you eat an Alphonso! It’s worth going back to the motherland in mango season—it doesn't quite taste the same here!”
Of course, there’s no denying that fresh mangoes have always been superior to imported ones. The first mango tree I ever saw was in my great-grandmother’s garden in Waisa, Pakistan. It stood alone in the middle of her garden with foliage like a leafy lion’s mane. On a visit one summer, the first and last time I met my great-grandmother, she instructed her nurse to hand me a plastic bag filled with green-skinned mangoes. “I picked those myself earlier,” she told me proudly. Even now, when I taste a Langra mango, this memory comes flooding back to me
Whichever your preferred variety of mango, the way you eat it can be another source of contention. The lassi—mango blitzed with yogurt—is a timeless summer beverage in many South Asian households. Mother-of-four Bilqees Hussain tells me she adds a “secret ingredient” of vanilla ice cream to hers, but Tom, the owner of Exotic Foods in Bradford’s Oastler Market sees lassi mixed with the cold dessert as “an Americanisation” of a fruit best enjoyed on its own.
“Back home in Jamaica, 90-percent of Jamaicans don’t mix mango with nuttin’,” he tells me. “The Jamaican way is the best way, you get more out of it. If you cut it up and have it with salad or sometin’, it don’t taste the same.”
I can’t resist asking Tom which mango he prefers.
“My favourite mango is Julie, name like a girl called Julie,” he says, referring, unsurprisingly to a Caribbean variety of the fruit. “Woman always sweeter anyway.”
September is now upon us and with it, the end of the summer mango season. Indian Alphonsos have long deserted market stalls and there’s no telling whether the Pakistani mangoes wrapped affectionately in yellow tissue paper are perfectly ripe or perfectly rotten. Still unsure which mango deserves the crown, I decide to settle the question once and for all with a mango-off at Bread + Roses, a co-operative cafe in Bradford. I cut slices of the Brazilian Palmer and the Pakistani Chaunsa, the only mangoes left this late in the season, and offer them to other customers at the cafe.
Two women take me up on my mango challenge and sink their teeth into the golden flesh. “Which one do you think tastes best?” I ask hesitantly. Even after my mango odyssey, I am admittedly still rooting for the Pakistani mango. The response is unanimous.
“Brazilian!” they cry.
My Pakistani mango nationalistic sensibilities have never been so offended.