K S S Pillai
Summer is the season for mangoes. Once you enter the southernmost district of Gujarat, while driving to Mumbai, you come across stalls selling ripe mangoes on both sides of the highway. The fruits in all stalls look alike. Though they charge more than the market rate, drivers stop their cars near the stalls to load crates of mangoes into them.
The scene reminded me of the mango season back home in Kerala during my childhood. Schools and colleges would be closed for the summer vacation, and it was usual to see most family members assembled under the sprawling mango trees. Children would have a happy time eating mangoes from their tender stage with crystal salt, chillies and sometimes tamarind from the neighbour's compound. Women would be busy preparing mango chutney from the early stages of the mango season. As the fruits ripened, the occasional breeze, squirrels and crows that feasted on them would bring the mangoes crashing down.
As there were no hybrid varieties like today, most compounds had several old mango trees of indigenous varieties. Some would have sweet fruits while others had sour and even sweet-sour ones when they ripened. Some trees like the 'Kilichundan' would grow tall and their fruits would cling to them so tightly that they would not fall even after their major portions were eaten by squirrels and crows. When they ripen, someone would climb the tree and pluck them. Some trees were named after the scent emitted by the ripe fruits, like 'Karpura mango' that smelt like camphor.
Tender mangoes of the sour varieties would be filled in small jars as pickles along with salt, oil and different spices. They would be stored away, to be taken out one by one after the season was over. Mangoes from certain trees would be stored in salt water in large Chinese jars that would remind one of Alibaba and the forty thieves hiding inside jars. Over time, the fruits would shrivel, their juice slowly flowing into the brine solution. The seal of those jars would be broken only when the trees had no more mangoes on them. Only these mangoes in the salt water and mango pickles were stored for use after the season.
I dreaded visiting houses during the mango season as cut mangoes would soon be there before me. At lunches or dinners, one could expect a curry with the whole de-skinned sweet-sour mangoes. People relish squeezing these mangoes and sucking them dry.
There were no jellies, squashes, jams, syrups, or other value-added products in those days. Only two types of mangoes were there: the sweet ones that were cut into pieces for eating and those that were preferred for their juice brought out by squeezing them with hand. Whole mangoes in salt water and tender mango pickles were the only ones preserved for future use.
Many used to boil nuts at the end of the season, drain the water to remove the toxic elements, and dry the kernels in the sun for preparing special food items. The dried outer shells of the nuts were used as fuel in the hearth.