When the time comes to crown the world's greatest fruit, it will be hard to argue against the mango. It's got it all — a slippery, juicy lustiness; intriguing, inspiring aromas of everything good and tropical; candylike sweetness and enough balancing tartness to remind you that it's still a real fruit, not a cavity borer designed in a lab. Some of my best friends have been mangoes. Until I ate them.
My first-ever kitchen job involved making buckets of mango salsa with black beans, scallions and a dozen other things that were tasty enough but that also, in my opinion, never needed to be there. I grew up eating mangoes raw — straight, no chaser. Only when my mother bought way too many on special and they languished, softening too quickly, did we cut them and blend them into shakes, so we could suck them down faster. I'll share my mom's recipe — and a recipe for a fantastic Indian yogurt-mango drink — below, but first, some basics on how to handle the magic.
How to select a mango and tell if it's ripe
The mango is one of the world's most beloved fruits, and accordingly, there are thousands of varieties from dozens of countries, spanning months — essentially all year — of seasonality. (There is basically no such thing as eating a local mango if you live the U.S. — unless you live in Hawaii, in a tiny patch of the California desert, or at the very tip of Florida.)
Indian mangoes are some of the most exciting in the world — especially the Alphonso and Kesar varieties. They've only been available in the U.S. for three years, and their season is awfully short and closing as we speak. If you live near a South Asian market, try to get some before they're gone. From Mexico come several varieties, and I particularly like Champagne mangoes, small but extra-fragrant and smooth textured, with none of the fibrousness you sometimes find. And in July and August, we'll have Kent mangoes from Robert Is Here in Florida, which are maybe the greatest thing I've ever tasted in my life.
But no matter which mango you go for, look for skins that are taut and smooth. The fruit should feel heavy for its size, a sign of density and juiciness.
To test for ripeness, go with your nose and hands, not your eyes. While most mangoes will change color as they ripen from green to yellow or red, the coloration is really inconsistent. Sometimes an awesomely ripe mango will still be mostly green.
Give the mango a sniff. It should make you want to eat it, smelling like coconuts and flowers and a vacation. A really great one will leave a scent — sweet, dark and leathery — on your hands and maybe have a slight gasoline-y smell. (You won't taste that.)
Then give it a gentle squeeze. If it's ready, it will yield a bit. Remember that mangoes will continue to ripen as they sit, so if you're not planning on eating them for a few days, it might be better to buy ones that are a bit firmer.
Let them sit and ripen at room temperature, and then when they're ready, they can last a few days in the fridge. But, to my mind, it's hard to put them away and stop letting them perfume the room. Better just to eat them.
How to peel and cut a mango
It breaks my heart to see good people do wrong by their mango, struggling with a peeler that can't cut through the thick skin, mashing up the fruit underneath or trying to cut through the thick, flat pit and giving up.
My favorite way to approach a mango with a knife is fast and easy, plus it gives you bite-sized chunks of fruit on a neat little serving dish made from the skin and leaves you with a cook's treat — a fleshy pit to enjoy before your guests eat all your mangoes.
Size up your mango: It will have two flatter or wider sides. The large pit will mirror this shape and will be roughly the middle third of the fruit, depending on variety. (Don't worry, you'll get a lot of that third back. Just wait.)
With a sharp paring knife, slice off the two wide, flatter sides, each about one-third of the width of the mango. If you're not in a hurry, this would be a great time to treat yourself to the pit — slip your knife between the skin and the fruit and gently work it all the way around, letting the skin guide your blade and taking it off in one whole ring. Just make sure to get all the skin off — one taste of its bitterness can ruin a great bite. Grab a plate to catch the juices, and slurp and nibble off all the meat from the pit. If it's a great mango, eat it over the sink with your sleeves rolled up.
Now hold one of the mango lobes, skin side down, in the palm of your hand. With the tip of your knife, gently score it with lines a half inch or more apart, all the way to the skin but being careful not to poke through it. Now rotate the mango 90 degrees and score it again, making a square or diamond pattern.
Hold the scored mango, flesh side up, with both hands and flip it inside out, so the fruit pops out like a porcupine. Either shave off the mango diamonds with your knife, or serve the fruit just like that, so guests can pluck each bite off with their teeth.
OK, so you went hog wild and bought that case. I can't blame you. But now you have half a dozen ripe mangoes and can't bear to see them go anywhere but in your belly. Let me show you what my mom used to do, and then a more sophisticated South Asian version.
My mom's mango shake
This is as fundamental a treat as there is. The mango really does all the work; the milk is there for a little roundness, and the ice to chill and give it extra texture. If you're really serious about intense mango flavor, skip the ice, freeze a quarter of your cut-up mango pieces instead, and thin the shake with milk as necessary.
Makes 3 cups
- 16-ounce mango, very ripe, cut into chunks and preferably chilled (about 2 medium-sized mangoes)
- 4 ounces milk
- 4 ounces ice
- Lime juice, to taste (optional but really nice)
- In a blender, zap mango, milk and ice together. Taste and season with lime juice if you'd like the drink a little more refreshing
You might say, "Hey, that just sounds like a smoothie." And maybe you'd be right, but there were no such things as smoothies in my mother's kitchen in the '80s.
Mango yogurt shake (Mango lassi)
A traditional South Asian drink, the mango lassi is a wonder of the earth, blending the fruit with tart yogurt, which carries the mango's floral, tropical flavors beautifully, and the tartness heightens the fruit's sweetness. I like to add a pinch of salt to help bring out the flavor and a few cracks of black pepper for an intriguing aroma, but I'm told by my extra-fabulous colleague Riddhi Shah that's bordering on sacrilege. She suggests garnishing with a sprinkle of cardamom, nuts or cream instead. She's probably right. And she gave us the recipe below, too, from three generations of women in her Indian family.
One last note that would probably give Riddhi's mother a mild heart attack: Use very ripe mangoes for this, but canned Indian mango purée, available by mail order or in South Asian markets, can be wonderful too. (Sorry, Mama Shah!)
- 3 parts whole-milk yogurt, not the strained Greek kind
- 1 part milk
- 1 part mango
- Pinch ground cardamom (optional)
- Crushed pistachio (optional)
- Cream (optional)
Note that the recipe is heavy on the yogurt and designed for people who are really looking for a mango-flavored yogurt drink. I personally prefer this ratio:
- 3 parts yogurt
- 3 parts mango
- 1 part milk
- sugar, to taste (optional)
- If you're using a prepared purée, just whisk or mix together. If using fresh fruit, purée everything together in a blender or food processor. Garnish with any or none of the optional ingredients.