The mango is considered the 'king of fruits' in India and features prominently in its ancient culture, from religion to art to poetry. Called आम (aam) in Hindi, the fruit is a symbol of good luck and prosperity. Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god is often depicted holding a mango, while one of the Mughal emperors was said to have kept his son under house arrest to punish the prince for hoarding his favourite mangos. The fruit is closely associated with summer, which in India is April to June before the arrival of the monsoons. The sweet, cool pulp of the mango provides welcome relief from the blistering heat, and in fact there was a heat wave in April this year with temperatures over 40ºC.
Not surprisingly, India is the largest producer, growing over 40% of the world's mangos with over 1,000 varietals. Each of these has its own fan club, but the biggest superstar, the "King of Mangos", is undoubtedly the Alphonso (also called हाफूस or Hapus in Hindi). The Alphonso mango is prized for its taste, fragrance and vibrant saffron colour and has a rich, creamy texture and a delicate, non-fibrous, juicy pulp that’s smooth and buttery. It is a topic of media interest when the early harvest of Alphonsos starts trickling into markets in February (see video below), and even the Indian diaspora as far away as Canada start placing their orders by the cartons.
The mango is mentioned in Hindu holy scriptures dating from 600 BC, with the indigenous species Mangifera indica being cultivated as far back as 4,000 years ago. So what's the Portuguese connection?
The Alphonso is named after the Viceroy of Portuguese India, Afonso de Albuquerque, who became the first Duke of Goa after seizing the territory in 1510. During his rule, the "Columbian exchange" got underway with fruits and vegetables from the Americas being introduced to the Old World, including current day staples such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chili peppers and peanuts. Contrary to some accounts, the mango was not one of these, and it was neither introduced to India by the Portuguese nor does the Alphonso have any links to Brazilian mangos. The Portuguese in fact introduced mangos to Africa and Europe, and eventually to Brazil, making the fruit part of the Columbian exchange in the other direction (along with apples, bananas, coffee and wheat), from the Old World to the New.
The most popular mangos in India in the 16th century were those called the "sucking" type, meaning they were soft and pulpy and could be cut at one end and enjoyed by squeezing the fruit by hand and sucking out the sweet flesh. These probably couldn't withstand the long sea journeys by ship to export markets, and Albuquerque was said to want mangos that were firm to the touch and could be cut and served at tables in Europe. To achieve this, the Jesuit missionaries introduced the technique of grafting on mango trees, and they created many cultivars to which they gave Portuguese names like Peres, Rebello, Fernandina, António and of course, Alphonso (it remains unclear why the Portuguese spelling of Afonso or Affonso wasn't used or got changed).
Although it was developed for export, the Alphonso became a hit in the home market. The Portuguese did still succeed in exporting many varieties of mango, and this is why the English word mango comes from, surprise, the Portuguese manga, which in turn was borrowed from the Tamil மாங்காய் (māṅkāy), potentially via the Malay mangga.
Today, the Alphonso is one of the most expensive types of mango, and sadly this is especially so this year with harvests seriously affected by the unseasonal heat wave experienced by India in February. Here's a report in the Indian media when the first Alphonsos hit the market earlier this year: