Marvellous mangoes (and other interesting facts)

Saturday, 2 August 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Did you know that Sri Lanka has over 60 varieties of banana? This post is about mangoes, sorry for straying from the topic momentarily, please bear with me. Back to the bananas. Did you know that Sri Lanka has over 600 varieties of rice, over 430 species of bird and over 240 species of butterfly? Sri Lanka is known for its biodiversity, and is home to many unique types of plant, animal and bird which are not found anywhere else in the world. Even the blue whales found off Sri Lanka’s coast [see] are special, with their own dialect and breeding patterns. The island’s biodiversity extends of course to mangoes. Realistically, how much can there be to write about the sweet, juicy mango with her rich, complex flavours? It is mango season in Sri Lanka, so let’s see what we can find out. On the biodiversity note; I must confess, I don’t know the exact number of mango varieties found in the paradise isle, but I suspect it would rival India’s estimated 500-1,000 varieties, especially with the breeding of new cultivars and hybrids, and the diversity of microclimates found in Sri Lanka.  


Sri Lanka’s different mango types are fairly diverse, reflecting the previously mentioned different climate zones where they are cultivated, differing in size, colour (inside and out), taste and texture. Mangoes grow all over, but commercial cultivation is found in a few key districts mainly within the dry zone, including Jaffna in the north. Perhaps surprisingly, mangoes need not only a period of rain to ensure they grow and ripen well, but also a dry period of about three to four months, so that the pollen doesn’t get washed off, as this may hamper pollination. When it comes to varieties, a Sri Lankan favourite is the Karutha Colomban; the inside with its warm saffron tones, and the divinely rich, fragrant and very juicy flesh. Another important feature is the relative lack of fibres in the flesh (meaning happy eating, as you won’t get fibres stuck between your teeth). In the same way the Alphonso Mango is said to be the king of mangoes in India, Karutha Colomban is seen as the goddess of mangoes in Sri Lanka. In fact, a hybrid cross of the two has been developed [], the so-called TEJC mango. The TEJC (or TJC as you may see it called in supermarkets) tree is said to have fruits of up to one kg a piece and the potential to bear fruit eight months a year. I am a bit sceptical of new varieties but did try this mango and found it to be tasty, if not divine. It has few fibres, firm flesh and is smooth on the palate. It is less perfumey than the Karutha Colomban, which I liked. Pictured you can see a cultivar of the TEJC mango, being grown by the Islander Centre [] who are cultivating an organic variety of the TEJC mango. (Picture from Aarthi) The Gira amba is very tasty, with an uncomplicated smooth and not too fragrant vanilla/custard tone. These mangoes are big, dark orange in colour inside and out, and reasonably priced. Villard amba are beautiful to look at, small, firm with red/orange/yellow/green patches. The flesh is juicy but not too sweet, and not too overpowering or fragrant. There is a lightness to the taste, not cloying as some mangoes can be, and it is almost citrusy in flavour without being sour. Betti amba are small, dark green and not too sweet, but have a lot of fibres for those fussy about their teeth. I particularly like the Pol ambe, with its matt yellow skin, stocky appearance and sweet coconut tones.  Rata amba is also popular for having low fibre content. Its skin is green, flesh fairly soft and it is juicy and sweet, and quite simply delicious. Different countries have different mango traditions; I have eaten raw mango with Thai whiskey (good combination). Other happy mango memories include peeling the skin off fresh, juicy Filipino mangoes as you would the wrapper off a Cornetto cone (no knives needed!) and the excitement when boxes of the divinely sweet, honey-like Pakistani honey mangoes used to arrive on various London stalls (including Shepherd’s Bush, Tooting, Harrow and Brick Lane), signalling the beginning of the honey mango season.  


Apart from being super tasty when eaten straight from the tree, mangoes can be successfully used in cooking because they are delicious not only when ripe and sweet but are also yummy when unripe and sour, and at all stages in between. If you haven’t tried it yet, make sure to taste the raw mango/chilli mix sold by street vendors in Sri Lanka, and I am sure other countries (or make it yourself: mix sliced raw mango/chilli powder/salt and shake). I am not going to go into details on specific recipes because you can find so any amazing recipes online these days (and I firmly believe that artistic license and stubborn refusal to follow recipes to the letter makes for creative and delicious cooking...). But here is an overview of a few favourites of mine when using mango in cooking, including tips. Mango salsa: Chop medium ripe/very ripe mango and mix with a combination of the following: chopped red onion, chopped tomato, chopped cucumber, avocado, with a squeeze of lime. You can also add fresh chilli or dry chilli flakes, basil, mint, coriander according to taste, and shape this into a non-spicy creation or add some spicy flair, depending on your preference and what you are eating it with. This goes well with grilled fish or chicken, or can be bulked out to make a salad in its own right. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t matter if the mango is overripe and super juicy, the juice incorporates with the lime as a dressing. Villard mango would work well for this, but any mango works really. Sticky rice with mango: For this heavenly Thai dessert you need glutinous rice (and sweet ripe mangoes). Once you have found the rice, Google is your friend on how to make the coconut rice. Fresh coconut milk makes all the difference! In Colombo sticky/glutinous rice can be found (at a price) in Brana’s (Colpetty market). Sadly, I don’t think it’s worth making this dessert if you can’t find glutinous rice. Given its coconutty nature, I feel the Pol amba would be good for this. Mango lassi: An Indian favourite, made in Sri Lanka with delicious fresh buffalo curd (similar to yoghurt). Any kind of mango smoothie is very tasty, but if you pair mango with yoghurt (or even passion fruit or lime) for a sour edge, it adds new dimensions and makes it super refreshing. A smoothie is a good way to enjoy a more fibrous mango without getting too much fibre between your gnashers. Raw mango salad: This is another take on the famously spicy Thai raw papaya salad. By teaming up raw mango with flavours like peanut, chilli and lime, you create an intense taste sensation that can be paired up with creamy Thai curries and grilled dishes alike.  

Where to buy

Surely there can’t be that much difference between mangoes? My advice is to try different types of mango. Get a few different varieties and taste them together. I would especially recommending going to pola (market) to find more varieties. In particular, Delkanda junction market (on High Level Road towards Maharagama) on Saturdays is good for the more adventurous who have a bit of time and want to see real village produce. For more comfort, ease of access and of course elevated prices, you could stick to Colpetty market or the jathika pola. Best of all is if you happen to be out of town and pass stalls outside people’s homes selling ambes. The best ones I had in Sri Lanka a few years back were from a home near Malattawela/Bibilehela outside Wellawaya, on the A4 en route to the lovely Arugam Bay. However this was before I started to learn more about mangoes, so all I know is that they were small, green and like little bursts of goodness in your mouth. For organic mangoes, the Good Market can’t be beaten [] and for home delivery try Saaraketha []. A mango article wouldn’t be complete without a few more fun facts. The diversity of the flavours in the mango spectrum is great, as mentioned. Although mangoes originated from South Asia, they are now grown at frost-free climes across the world, including the Americas, Southern Europe and across Asia. South America has some very tasty specimens, such as the red and green-skinned, firm-fleshed Tommy Atkins. The names given to mango varieties are delightful, with inventive naming to reflect complexity of flavour: across the world we find fun names like lemon meringue (Burma), ice cream (Trinidad & Tobago) and coconut cream (USA). And when talking about the origins of ingredients, I can’t help but mention another favourite fact of mine. In the same way mangoes crossed the oceans from Asia to the Americas with seafaring traders many moons ago, so did the chilli pepper come to South Asia from the Americas, going on to become an integral part in the cuisine here. So much so that it’s surprising that chillies are not originally from South Asia. But that’s a whole other blog post. (Trekurious together with DailyFT explores Sri Lanka for the curious traveller. Trekurious works with talented individuals and great brands to create amazing experiential tours, activities, and events in Sri Lanka. You can find out more at  

 Organic mangoes

 Organic mango nursery at the Islander Centre
A quick aside on the topic of organic cultivation: We find in Sri Lanka as in most other countries that harmful pesticides and fertilisers are used in fruit cultivation. In Sri Lanka, carbicides are also used to speed ripening. Although carbicides have been banned from use in Sri Lanka, their use is still fairly widespread. Buying any non-organic certified fruit or vegetable, you have no guarantee of how it has been grown. But in particular, as I learnt during my time at the Green Movement of Sri Lanka [] look out for telltale signs of artificial ripening, such as patches of small rings/spots on papayas, and ripening from the lower end of bananas (a banana usually ripens from the end which attaches it to the bunch). Note that spots on mangoes do not mean they have been artificially ripened; spots are a natural part of some mangoes skin.