THE SEASON FOR Thailand's magnificent mangoes is almost here. While the month of April ushers in the sometimes oppressive heat and humidity of the Thai hot season, one compensation is that it is the beginning of the Thai mango season. The mango, known as mamuang in Thai, is one of Thailand's premier tropical fruits, and Thailand produces some of the most delicious mangoes in the world. Ripe mangoes are eaten for dessert while pickles and chutney are prepared from unripe fruit. You shouldn't hesitate to enjoy this luscious and abundant fruit, because the season only lasts for two months - April and May, after that it's another ten month wait.
Thailand's tropical climate is perfect for high quality and abundant mango growth. As well as the long tropical rainy season from July to October, Thailand's equally long dry season from November to March gives the mango tree its much needed protection from bacteria and fungus. It is significant that the mango season occurs towards the end of the dry season, and just months before a new rainy season. When the country's tropical heat reaches its height in April and May, the mangoes ripen.
The mango tree is indigenous to Southeast Asia, and once grew wild from the Indian state of Assam all through the region to the Philippines, and is now cultivated in these same areas. The tree is an evergreen, although it only bears fruit once a year. The trees will grow to a height of 18 meters (60 feet), but many are topped for easier harvesting of the fruit. It has a long life cycle and is a sturdy tree which is not particular about soil. These characteristics, along with the delicious fruit, make it a favorite for Thais to plant in their yards. The full grown mango tree is thick with large, deep green, leathery leaves, with roots that grow very deep in the soil.
The mango fruit varies greatly in size; the smallest being no larger than a hen's egg, while the largest can weigh up to 2.3 kilos (5 pounds). The form of the mango can be oval, round, heart-shaped, kidney-shaped or long and slender, depending on the area, the soil and the variety. The colors of the ripe fruit vary and could be red, yellow-red, yellow, yellow-green or green. Each mango has a single flat seed, surrounded by flesh which is either yellow or orange, and this flesh is rich in vitamins A, C and D. Mangoes are available in many distinct varieties during the April-May harvesting season, and there is a steady, ample supply during this time. The harvesting itself is a delicate process because the fruit is easily bruised, so harvesting is usually done by hand.
The Thai people are very fond of mangoes, both green and ripe for an anytime snack. They like to thinly slice the green fruit and dip the crisp slices into fish sauce sweetened with palm sugar and spiced up with other ingredients, or in a mixture of sugar and chili powder known as mamuang naam pla warn. There is also yaam mamuang, which is a spicy Thai salad made with shredded unripe mangoes. Unripe mangoes are also pickled (mamuang dhong), and used in some chutney recipes.
The ripened mango fruit is used in many ways in Thailand, and every way is delicious. Northern Thailand has the rich and tasty Mango and Sticky Rice dessert dish (khao niaw mamuang). This consists of sliced juicy mangoes, glutinous rice, lots of coconut cream and a little sugar, salt and alum. There are many others, but the plain ripened mango is the perennial favorite. Since mangoes ripen quickly and do not last long, much of the mango harvest is canned immediately and sold both within the country and abroad. Some of the more popular canned mango products from Thailand are mango juice, mango puree, mango custard, and mango slices in nectar.
To the Thais, in addition to being a wonderfully delicious fruit, the mango holds a much deeper significance. It is directly connected with the folklore and religions of India, the land of the origin of Buddhism as it is practiced in Thailand. It is said that the Buddha himself was presented with a mango grove in which to find repose in a shady area.
It is believed that the mango has actually been cultivated by man for at least 4,000 years. There are numerous references to the mango in the early literature of India, always using the mango as a representation of veneration and a fruit to be given the highest esteem. The mango flowers, or blossoms, have been used consistently in Indian religious ceremonies (in addition to the fruit itself) and, in some places (like Thailand) annual festivals are held during the mango harvesting season.
The mango also goes back to the great Persian Empire in terms of its significance for life. In the 14th century, the poet Amir Khusur, wrote the following verse: "The mango is the pride of the garden, the choicest fruit of Hindustan; other fruits we are content to eat when ripe, but the mango is good in all stages of growth." And in the 16th century, the great Mughal emperor, Akbar, planted the famous "Lakh Bahg", an orchard of 100,000 mango trees.
The cultural significance of the mango should not be surprising. To millions of people living in Southeast Asia, the mango has grown from time immemorial, and has been a staple, and precious, fruit for as long as anyone can remember.
At this time of year many hotels and restaurants in Chiangmai feature special dessert dishes made with mangoes e.g. mango with cottage cheese, mango cheese cake, mango milk shake, mango melba, etc. This is definitely the time to sample and enjoy this most luscious Thai fruit fresh and in season.
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