A crescendo of mangoes takes place March through May every year in India. They roll into the markets in small numbers at the start of the season, expensive and aloof; by the time the harvest peaks this month they are all over the place, playfully cheap and ready to be squeezed and inspected by all.
Right now, mango frenzy is in full swing, not least in Mumbai, a city where people know better than anyone how to reincarnate a mango: street vendors across the city start squeezing mango juice for around 20 rupees (about 45 cents, at about 44 rupees to $1); fashionable bars mix mango martinis for around 20 times as much; and restaurants at five-star hotels launch mango minifestivals featuring expensive avant-garde mango curiosities.
Indians have become very fond indeed of a fruit that is absent for so much of the year. (Outside the season many must console themselves with their mothers' homemade mango pickles.) The first mangoes of the year make newspaper headlines and herald the coming of summer. India has its own heavily processed answer to Coca-Cola in Frooti, a ubiquitous sugary mango-flavored drink (Coca-Cola, eager for a share of the mango-drink market dominated by Frooti, promoted a brand called Maaza).
The Indian wing of DHL even offers a courier service specifically for mangoes, although the United States has long been absent from its list of destinations because of its ban on Indian mangoes. But the ban should soon be lifted as part of a deal struck by President Bush on his March visit to the country, which will also give India easier access to nuclear technology. Quid pro quo, as far as many Indians are concerned. "The U.S. is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes," he said at a press conference, cheering up a local press that he had earlier disappointed by not seeming too well-versed about cricket and Bollywood, two other Indian passions.
But to enjoy mangoes at their non-jet-lagged best, head for Mumbai (still more often called Bombay by its inhabitants). The city is the first stop of the beloved Alphonso mango — widely considered the king of the mangoes — which grows in the surrounding Maharashtra and Gujarat countryside. The best specimens are said to come from Ratnagiri to the south of the city.
Inside knowledge always helps, so this reporter called upon Deepanjana Pal, a wine critic in Mumbai who is just as enthusiastic about mangoes. The most important lesson: How to eat a mango, presented in a three-part mime. She first holds out a cupped hand, in which sits the imaginary glistening orange oval of a whole peeled mango; she then deftly flicks her hand at the wrist to propel the phantom mango against her mouth, which gets busy sucking the flesh down to the seed; finally, outrageously, she deploys the full length of her tongue to lick her arm, elbow to wrist, to recapture an inevitable trickle of invisible mango juice.
"That," she says after a long moment's rapture with a fruit that's not even there, "is the best bit." She goes on to speculate that there is something alchemical in the mingling of sweetest mango juice with a salty sheen of sweat.
(Later, a local driver reacted with horror to the mime. "So you don't eat them like that?" I ask. "Well yes, at home, of course," he says. "But not in the streets! People will think that's where you live.")
Feeling ready to try out my mango technique on the real thing, I head to the 19th-century Crawford Market, haunt of housewives and head chefs. With its blackened Gothic clocktower, it looks like the wicked stepsister of the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village. But mango season is one of the least intimidating times to visit the place, with the sweet-smelling mango stalls offering necessary respite from the market's many less inviting parts, like the blood-puddled corridors past the butchers' stands and the notoriously dispiriting pet section with its grim array of birds and small animals slumped in tiny bare cages.
Unlike the caged puppies, newly arrived mangoes at the market get to bed down in hay for a whole week, ensuring that they ripen evenly from cool green to hot yellow. Then, once the mangoes are ready, shoppers nuzzle them affectionately against their faces as if the mangoes were sad and needed comforting, another treat withheld from the arguably more deserving puppies. The shoppers are in fact hoping to inhale the distinct whisper of mango perfume, which only barely leaks out the skin of the perfectly ripened fruit.
I learn this and many other mango-hunting tips at the stall of Vilas Dhoble, who, like most Indian fruit-sellers, stacks his mangoes with almost mathematical neatness — mangoes lend themselves to a satisfying pattern of tessellating diagonal rows.
Mr. Dhoble says that the business, founded by his grandfather, has been in Crawford Market for over a century, and was called upon to ship a dozen mangoes to England for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, though not before the British sent a bureaucrat with a microscope to weed out any with "germs inside."
He holds up the kind of perfect Alphonso mango he would happily to present to Her Majesty. Its skin is translucent, mostly yellow with some lingering green; a close look reveals a network of reddish capillaries. I eat it. One tongue doesn't seem enough for the mess it makes. Mr. Dhoble's wife Nirmala occasionally looks up from her paperwork to tear me a few merciful sheets of tissue from a stash in her desk.
The flesh is knockout sweet, sorbet-smooth and very wet. Surprisingly deep pools of quivering mango juice collect in the teeth marks.
"They are the food of the gods," says Mr. Dhoble, sounding genuinely nonpartisan despite his line of business. "Look at me. How old am I?" I underestimate his 60 years. "That's the mangoes!"
I leave with Mr. Dhoble's finest 50-rupee ($1.14) mango — priced more than three times higher than the Alphonsos I bought the night before in the suburbs.
During mango season in Mumbai, you are never more than six feet away from mango-based food or drink. Go to the vendors around Chowpatty, the carnivalesque main beach in downtown Mumbai, for fresh mango lassi, the Indian equivalent of a milkshake made from yogurty curd.
It's a little hard to find, but stiff and tangy made-on-the-premises mango ice cream is served for 40 rupees near the beach in humble surroundings at the Bharat Juice Center, behind Wilson College, a local landmark, and opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, an arts center. Then seek out a Gujarati restaurant for aam ras — the name literally means mango juice, but the reality is a bowl of thick overpowering mango purée. Leave your spoon alone and instead scoop up the stuff with puris, dense little roundlets of fried wheat dough. It is available for 65 rupees at Samrat on J. Tata Road, a 10-minute walk south from Churchgate Station.
End your journey at one of the city's increasing number of upmarket bars and restaurants, where mangoes are appearing on the menus in ever more elaborate manifestations. The Hilton Towers in downtown Nariman Point is embracing mangoes with particular gusto, and has two dozen mango-based dishes on a special menu running in its restaurants throughout May — including a mango and black mushroom broth (250 rupees) and steamed tofu and mangoes ( 525 rupees).