A Brief History of Mangoes
The name is applied to many things, but mangoes are still one of the best-tasting fruits out there and they help make a great libation.
Not the pop group, not an episode of Seinfeld, not the record label, the singer, the character in a Saturday Night Live skit, or the electric car. No, not those mangoes. The kind of mangoes we are interested in are found on the Mangifera indica L. tree, a species given its currently accepted name by the great Linnaeus himself.
The mango is believed to be native to Southeast Asia and India; more specifically, the region between Bangladesh, Myanmar, and northeast India, where, according to the fossil record, the plant arose some 20-30 million years ago. The genus Mangifera contains close to 70 species, of which about a third bear edible fruit. Mangifera is an evergreen tree in the Anacardiaceae (the sumac or cashew family), that also includes, besides sumacs and cashews, poison ivy, poison oak, and more recently, the pistachio.
The word “mango” is derived from the name given to it in its endemic region — amra-phal. From there it went something like this: amra-phal (India) → aam-kaay (Southern India) → maankaay → maanga (Southwest India) → mango (Portuguese). Portuguese? Yes, Portuguese colonists and traders were highly impressed with the fruit and were the first to bring it, and its name, to the rest of the world around 500 years ago.
The mango is technically a drupe, also known as a stone fruit. It has fleshy outer tissue covered by a thin skin, surrounding a single hard seed. Depending on who you ask, there are somewhere between 300 and 1,000 mango varieties, although only perhaps 40 are well known. Six varieties are commonly available at various times in the U.S.: Honey, Francis, Haden, Keitt, Kent, and Tommy Atkins.
Of these, the Keitt is considered the largest, but they are all similarly sized and shaped (about the size of a fist and generally egg-shaped) and vary in color from green to yellow to red. Unripe mangos are hard and green with a sour taste. As they ripen, they get softer, but should remain firm as they turn some shade between yellow and red depending on the cultivar. The taste is often described as a combination of pineapple, peach, and orange with perhaps a hint of lime.
The Portuguese may have introduced the mango to wider appreciation in the 1500s, but mangoes are known from the historical record in India from more than 4,000 years ago. India is big-time mango country. The “King of Fruit” is the national fruit of India, signifying abundance, prosperity, and wealth.
Mangoes are grown in more than 90 countries, but India supplies somewhere around one-half of the 54 million metric tons of mangos produced worldwide each year, a figure that has doubled over the past twenty years. China, Thailand, Mexico, and Indonesia round out the top five. Most mangos sold in America come from central and South America, although some production is possible in Florida, California, Hawaii, and the Territory of Puerto Rico.
Mangoes are used to make smoothies, ice cream, sorbet, fruit cocktails, purées, or are just eaten raw. They provide a bit of sweetness in otherwise savory and spicy Asian dishes. Mangoes are usually appreciated for their succulent, fresh fruity flavor, but they can be used for more savory applications, especially pickling. Pickling often begins with green unripe mangoes which normally would not be considered especially good for eating. And, let’s not forget the mango daiquiri, mango colada, mango margarita, or the mango martini.
One mango contains around 45 grams of sugar so they are high in carbohydrates and calories. Mangoes have plenty of fiber and are low in fat. Vitamins and minerals are really the key with mangos though, as they are excellent sources of a dozen or so essentials and provide smaller amounts of nearly a dozen more. Research on the health and medicinal benefits of mangoes is ongoing.
One more thing — mango skin contains a small amount of urushiol, the irritating compound in poison ivy. If you have never eaten a mango before and are sensitive to poison ivy, use caution to be sure you don’t have a reaction.
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