Tropical Fruit Facts and Legends: Mango – The Fruit of Love and Friendship

Tropical Fruits

Three ripe mangoes

A National Fruit

The mango is the most consumed fruit in the world and mangoes comprise approximately half of all tropical fruits produced worldwide. Mango is the national fruit of India, Pakistan, and the Philippines and is considered one of the Three Royal Fruits (Mukkani) in Tamil Nadu. The mango tree is the national tree of Bangladesh.

A Golden Heart

The English word “mango” originated from the Portuguese word “manga”, which in turn is thought to have originated from a Dravidian word.  In the Philippines, where the fruit is also called “manga”; a local legend tells of Ben who, despite his poverty, was always ready to help those in need. His kindness and purity of heart was an inspiration to the community and so the whole village grieved when Ben got sick and died.  In the midst of deep sadness in the community, a fairy arrived and asked for Ben’s heart which the parents gladly gave.  The fairy took and buried the heart on a hill.  After a few days, a tree grew from the spot where Ben’s heart was buried and the tree eventually bore a sweet, golden fruit the shape of a heart which later on became known as the “manga”.

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A golden fruit the shape of a human heart

Fruit of Love and Friendship

On the other hand, a Hindu legend tells the story a sun princess who was incinerated by an evil sorceress.  From the ashes of the sun princess grew a mango tree and the Emperor immediately fell in love with the mango flower and subsequently its fruit and when ripe mangoes fell to the ground, the beautiful sun princess emerged once again. From then on, the mango has become a symbol of love and a basket of mangoes is considered a gesture of friendship in India.

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Sliced ripe mangoes

How Asians Enjoy Mangoes

Most types of ripe mangoes have an orange-yellow or reddish peel and are generally sweet and juicy.  The taste and texture of the flesh vary across cultivars, some having a soft, pulpy texture similar to an overripe plum, while the flesh of others is firmer, like a cantaloupe or avocado, or may have a fibrous texture. The “smell test” is the traditional technique for choosing unpeeled mangoes as its sweetness is usually carried by the smell.  Ripe, unpeeled fruit gives off a distinctive resinous, saccharine fragrance; the more pronounced the sweet smell, the sweeter the mango as most locals believe.  Inside the ripe mango is a single flat, oblong pit that can be fibrous or hairy on the surface, and which does not separate easily from the pulp.

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The "hedgehog" style of serving mangoes

Ripe Mangoes

Ripe mangoes are commonly eaten fresh, the skin may be thicker and bitter tasting, so is typically not eaten. The “hedgehog” style is a common way of eating mangoes but in many mango farms in Asia; the pulp is eaten straight from the fruit after peeling off the skin by hand or with a knife.  The flesh of skinned mangoes is sliced in into “cheeks” when served fresh, into thin strips when prepared as ‘mango float’ or ingredient for fruit salads.

Green Mangoes

Green mangoes may be eaten raw with salt, chili, or soy sauce or, in the Philippines, with bagoong (salted anchovies) or fish sauce.  Green mangoes are also used in mango salad with fish sauce and dried shrimp.  In Central America, mango is either eaten green mixed with salt, vinegar, black pepper and hot sauce, or ripe in various forms.  It is also popular on a stick dipped in hot chili powder and salt or also as a main ingredient in fresh fruit combinations. Toasted and ground pumpkin seed (called pepita) with lime and salt are the norm in some places when eating green mangoes. The skin of unripe, pickled or cooked fruit may be consumed comfortably but has potential to cause contact dermatitis of the lips (gingiva) or tongue in susceptible people.

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A fruit vendor displays green and ripe mangoes on the back of his truck (South Cotabato, Philippines)

Full of Nutrients and Phytochemicals

Mango is rich in a variety of phytochemicals and nutrients and contains essential vitamins and dietary minerals.  The fruit pulp is high in antioxidant vitamins A, C and E.  Other B vitamins and essential nutrients such as potassiumcopper and 17 amino acids are also at good levels.  Phytochemical and nutrient content in mango however may vary across mango species.

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A roadside mango fruit stand in the Philippines (Digos City)

Many Culinary Uses

Mangoes have many other culinary uses.  Mango is used to make juices, smoothies, ice cream,  mango nectar, fruit bars, raspadosaguas frescas, pies  and as a flavoring and major ingredient in  sorbetes.  A variation uses mashed pieces of mango pulp as a topping on ice cream or blended with milk and ice as milkshakes. A cooling summer drink called panna or panha comes from mangoes.  Mango Lassi, a popular drink made throughout South Asia is created by mixing ripe mangoes or mango pulp with yogurt and sugar. Ripe mangoes are also used to make curries. Aamras is a popular pulp/thick juice made of mangoes with sugar or milk, and is consumed with bread, rice or pooris.  Sweet glutinous rice is flavored with coconut, and then served with sliced mango as a dessert. In other parts of Southeast Asia, green mangoes are pickled with fish sauce and rice vinegar.  Sour, unripe mangoes are used in chutneysathanu, or side dishes. Mango with condensed milk may be used as a topping for shaved ice.

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Philippine dried mangoes (Cebu City)

Processed Mangoes

Dried strips or bars of sweet, ripe mango (sometimes combined with seedless tamarind to form mangorind) are popular mango products. In Cebu City, Philippines, these preserves are packed and sealed in plastic containers.  This packaging is usually allowed in hand-carried or checked-in luggage for international travel while fresh mangoes are usually banned from crossing international terminals due to restrictions related to the contamination of fruit flies.  In other countries, ripe mangoes are often cut into thin layers, desiccated, folded, and then cut into bars similar to dried guava fruit bars.  Mangoes are also used in preserves like morambaamchur (dried and powdered unripe mango) or the jam called ‘mangada’. The fruit is also added to cereal products like muesli and oat granola.

Common Mango

The common mango (Mangifera indica) or Indian mango is the only mango tree commonly cultivated in many tropical and subtropical regions; its fruit is distributed essentially world-wide.  This variety of mango tree can grow up to 35–40 meters tall, with a crown radius of 10 meters. It is said that some specimens still fruit after 300 years. Mango flowers have mild sweet odour suggestive of lily of the valley.  The fruit takes three to six months to ripen.

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A basket of ripe mangoes

Mango Producers

Mangoes have been cultivated in South Asia for thousands of years. More than a third of the world’s mangoes are cultivated in India alone, the second producer being China.   Other cultivators include North, South and Central America, the Caribbean, south, west and central Africa, Australia, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Southeast Asia.  Mango is also being grown in Andalusia, Spain (mainly in Málaga province), which is one of the few places in mainland Europe that allows growth of tropical plants and fruit trees.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates worldwide production at nearly 35,000,000 tonnes in 2009. The aggregate production of the top 10 countries is responsible for roughly 80% of worldwide production.

Mango in Rituals

In several cultures, mango fruit and leaves are ritually used as floral decorations at weddings, public celebrations and religious ceremonies. In Hinduism, the perfectly ripe mango is often held by Lord Ganesha as a symbol of attainment towards the devotees’ potential perfection. Mango blossoms are also used in the worship of the goddess Saraswati.  Mango leaves are used to decorate archways and doors in Indian houses and during weddings and celebrations like Ganesh Chaturthi. Mango motifs and paisleys are widely used in different Indian embroidery styles, and are found in Kashmiri shawls, Kanchipuram silk sarees, etc.   In Australia, where mangoes are considered to be a symbol of summer, the first tray of mangoes of the season is traditionally sold at an auction for charity.

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A flowering mango tree in the Philippines (Sarangani Province)

A Mango Adventure

I gained my personal ‘worship’ for mangoes when I was growing up in a rural area in the Philippines.  There was a huge Indian Mango tree in our backyard, probably hundreds of years old, which was difficult to climb because of its sheer height and huge trunk.  Its sweet, abundant fruits ripen sometime in May when school was off for summer vacation and all the kids in the neighborhood were looking for adventure and wanted a share of the ripe mangoes. But none of us can climb the gigantic tree to harvest the ripe fruits so we had to wake up very early in the morning to pick up the fallen mangoes because fruit bats feed on them at night and other ripe fruits fall as the branches get shaken by the bats.  Collecting fallen mangoes became an exciting adventure and competition among the neighborhood kids as only the earliest and bravest to venture into the dark mango shade at dawn would get the best and most number of fruits (Oh, did I say that the mango tree stood next to a cemetery?).  Those who wake up late only get the half-eaten left-overs of fruit bats. I always got a good share of the ripe mangoes but since then I treasured and savored each mango I got hold of even if I just bought them from a street vendor.

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