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The mango love story

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, February 11, 2018

HAVE you ever stopped to think about the role food plays in romance, love and sex? Whether it's giving a box of cream-centred dark chocolates, a whole grilled lobster, a sizzling plate of head-on prawns or the juicy deliciousness of certain fruits — food nearly always sets the tone for an amorous encounter. Few human instincts are as compelling as the desire for sexual connection, with the foods of love playing an enormous role in the process.

Throughout time, the moment our basic survival needs of food, shelter and protection from the unknown have been met, we've sought sexual union, both for procreation and pleasure. And universal though it may be, sex is still the most enduring human enigma. It represents survival in its purest form, ensuring the continuation of our species, and at its worst is still fun; at its best, it's mind-blowing.

Long before entertainment meant sitting in front of a television, movie screen or smartphone, our ancient ancestors would amuse themselves by gathering around a fire and telling stories about the universe and how things came to be. While many stories would always involve a magical element, the native legends of tropical fruits also offered lessons of morality and humanity, and for mango, it is always about love. Mangoes are unusually still available right now in Fiji and their continued abundance during this Valentine's week makes me nostalgic to want to share the love story of one of my favourite fruits.

The mango has been known in India since very early times and humankind has been enjoying its delicious and aromatic sweetness for more than 4000 years. It is referred to in Sanskrit literature as amra and is usually associated with a story of love. The tropical fruit was unknown during biblical times and probably explains why it is not mentioned in the Bible.

It was a 17th century Chinese traveller to India named Hwen Tsang, who was the first person to bring mango to the notice of people outside of India. The spread of Buddhism assisted in the distribution of mangoes in Southeastern Asia. Buddhist monks took mango plants from India on voyages to Malaya and eastern Asia in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE. Mangoes were carried to Africa during the sixteenth century and later found their way aboard Portuguese ships to Brazil in the 1700s. Mexico acquired the mango in the nineteenth century, and it entered Florida in the US by 1833. But how has this fruit of love managed to captivate people for thousands of years?

The legend of the origin of the mango tree, symbolising eternal love, is mentioned in ancient Indian Sanskrit literature where its fruits were referred to as the "fruit of the Gods." It tells of a beautiful, golden radiant princess, the daughter of Sun God landed on Earth. The King of the land instantly fell in love with her, and desired to marry her.

However, a sorceress fell jealous of how King was in love with her, and turned her into ashes. From these ashes a huge tree with dark green leaves grew, which bore golden fruits like the radiance of the princess. As one of the fruits ripened and fell on Earth, it instantly turned back into the same Princess Surya Bai. The King recognised her, and they got married.

Whether it is because of its heart shape, unique sweetness or its bright golden flesh, mangoes are associated with many stories of the heart that end in tragedy like a Romeo and Juliet play. In the Philippines, the story of mango teaches a father the lessons and wishes of a daughter's love - after she kills herself! Not wanting to be forced to marry by her father, his beautiful daughter Aganhon, pleaded with him to cancel the engagement. He flatly refused and kept insisting that his choice was the best. On the day of the wedding, Aganhon was nowhere to be found.

The bridal party searched high and low, until someone finally ventured into a nearby stream and stumbled upon the young bride's motionless body, with a dagger sticking in her chest. Stricken with grief and remorse, the father dreamt of his daughter on the night of her funeral. In the dream, Aganhon led her father to a tree that grew on the spot where they found her body. The next morning he rushed over to the stream and found the same tree, its branches heavy with bright yellow fruits that were shaped like hearts. He sampled one and found it to be as sweet and tender as the heart of the daughter whose feelings he callously disregarded. He called it "mangga", which meant "heart-shaped" in their ancient Filipino tongue.

For a Fijian, the mango rekindles childhood fun, freedom and a time of reflection sitting under the shade of the mango tree, as the ripened fruit drops all around you. When it's mango season the endless abundance is a signal to get the mango recipes out and start preserving, drying, freezing, cooking or bottle them to enjoy out of season. Indian families are clever to turn green mango in a snack with salt and chilli, or pickling them with mustard oil, chilli and garlic. However you love mangoes — eat them, juice them, freeze them or rub them all over your body — appreciate their symbolism of external love.

Happy Valentine's Day.

? Lance Seeto is the executive chef at Malamala Beach Club and host of Exotic Delights which airs every Monday on FBC-TV at 7.45pm.

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