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The science behind mangoes: Explained

By Krish Ashok,

The fruit is the carrier of the plant's genes and continuous desire to reproduce itself.

The best-tasting mangoes will ideally be harvested very close to being perfectly ripe from the tree and consumed within days. Illustration: Krish Ashok

A perfectly ripe mango is an absolute marvel of nature. There are not enough Michelin stars to award the tree named Mangifera indica. No chef on the planet can concoct a dish that is such an ethereally perfect combination of sweetness, sourness, aroma, texture and just sheer joy. To truly appreciate this, one needs to understand why plants make fruits in the first place.

A fruit is a beautiful culinary construction, fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution to be perfectly enticing to the animals that eat it and, in the process, transport the seed far away to grow into another plant. The fruit is the vehicle for the mango plant’s selfish genes and its relentless pursuit of making more copies of itself. No amount of cooking can improve the flavour of a fruit because the plant has a vested interest in making it its magnum opus.

In fact, the primary distinction between a fruit and a vegetable is that the latter does not want to be eaten and will go to many lengths to biochemically synthesise nasty chemicals to prevent animals from eating it. Onions and garlic produce sulphur-based molecules that deter even the hungriest herbivore. Human beings have figured out ways to consume vegetables by cooking them, thus denaturing most of the nasty stuff before we consume it. But a perfectly ripe Imam Pasand (Himayat) mango starts its life as a flower on the tree. When it’s fertilised by male pollen, it initiates the production of hormones that lead to the expansion of the flower’s ovary walls. The accumulation of water-based sap in cell vacuoles is what we ultimately experience as the delicious yellow flesh of the mango. In the initial phases of the fruit’s growth, the sugars are stored as tasteless starch and the plant generates a ton of toxic chemicals in the milky white sap that oozes out of the stem, and astringent tannins and acids that serve as protection against pests and infection by microbes.

The moment the embryo says “Yep, I’m ready, let’s go”, the mango tree shifts into fourth gear. Starches get broken down into sugars, defensive chemicals disappear, the skin colour transforms into a bright, characteristic yellow (or red in the case of some cultivars) and a large number of aroma compounds are synthesised to appeal to the widest range of fruit-loving animals nearby, along with a softening of the flesh. This process, which we rather unromantically term “ripening”, is the fruit preparing for its own death in the most climactic possible way. The fruit dies to let the embryo travel elsewhere to grow into a new plant. When you smell the delicate tones of turpentine, vanilla, coconut, lime and Thai curry in an Imam Pasand, and are enticed to kill it and eat it, you are part of the glorious tale of its sacrifice.

But, of course, the modern-day mango-industrial-agriculture complex does not play by the rules of nature. Mangoes are harvested well before they are perfectly ripe. The goal is to get to that perfect ripeness in your fruit basket at home, and not any time earlier. Ripening is an irreversible and unstoppable process. It also continues after the mango has been harvested. The runaway chemical reactions that turn a sour and astringent raw mango into the pinnacle of deliciousness will eventually turn it into brown mush. The fruit is at its most vulnerable when perfectly ripe because there are no defensive chemicals to protect it from fungi, bacteria and insects.

So, here’s the basic challenge. The best-tasting mangoes will ideally be harvested very close to being perfectly ripe from the tree and consumed within days. Ripening away from the tree is, at best, a plan B for the plant. Ethylene gas, produced by most ripening fruits, is the hormone that accelerates ripening. So, let’s say you procure some expensive Alphonso mangoes (named rather unfortunately after a brutal Portuguese general named Afonso de Albuquerque, who has the unique record of being viscerally hated by two ex-colonies, Goa/India and Malacca/Malaysia, for the atrocities he committed during his time) that are still largely green in colour. There are two ways to ripen them. The quickest way is to wrap them in paper (don’t use plastic because the mango needs to breathe). That will concentrate the volatile ethylene gas inside and hasten ripening. If you are particularly short of time, throw in banana peels (many people tend to use a whole banana and end up wasting the fruit as it overripens in the process) with the mango in the paper enclosure. This will get you a ripe fruit in the quickest possible time.

If you have time to spare, put them in a cardboard box (with several holes) with hay. This is a very gentle way to ripen the fruit and gets you the best possible flavour. Rapid ripening always results in suboptimal flavour development. How do you know when it’s ripe? Don’t squish the mango. Just smell the bit near the stalk. You will know it because your brain will scream at 140 dB into the depths of your soul— “Eat this now!”

Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.

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