Mangoes Remind Me To Love My Country

I grew up eating and loving mangoes. Not the Alphonso ones with reddish heads that are popular in India, but the sweet and sour native carabao mangoes of the Philippines.

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The ripe, yellow ones burst with fructose. They are fun to freeze for a few minutes, slice then unseed. I love to scoop out those deep yellow cheeks with gusto in one singular motion, eat them, and maybe two more. In our infamously hot summers, I intentionally extend their shelf life, because overripe mangoes are perfect for frozen smoothies, with or without the milk or the lassi. All you need is ice, water, and the mangoes to make tropical magic with a blender.

The green ones are also delightful, though not inclined to go it alone. They can be incredibly sour, especially those with the whitest cheeks, and are usually paired with a salt-based condiment for some balance. I wait for the greens to ripen a little bit, slice lengthwise and dip in a local fish paste called bagoong that is loaded with sodium. Salt or fish sauce are options too, but Filipinos love their bagoong.

For a time, Filipino farmers had to figure out how to make mangoes available all year round. They used to be abundant only in the summer (March — May), so we had our version of winter without the snow. These days I seem to have mangoes within my reach anytime I want, which bodes well for this kitchen dweller who would like her mango served in different ways.

I have discovered through a quick search that this agricultural innovation was triggered by export demand. There is, in fact, a mad mango scientist lab in Guimaras that goes by the name “National Mango Research Development Center.” Americans and Australians are so fussy that our country had to formulate a procedure that eliminates mango seed and pulp weevils, but it is a good case study on how to use taxpayer’s money well.

Even the processed dried mangoes have the “export quality” stamp on it. These things, I must warn you, are addictive. The newer versions are dipped in chocolate, and the world is buying.

We have much to thank India for letting us cash in, by first helping the mango reach our shores around the 15th century. We now cultivate a sweeter polyembryonic version that we have also adopted as our national fruit. India remains the top producer of mangoes in the world, while the Philippines ranks 11th.

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The Philippine mango has become so vital in Filipino cuisine that it plays a role in every feast, usually as the much-awaited finale. I do not bake (it removes the spontaneity in my cooking), so discovering how ridiculously easy it is to make the no-bake Mango Float was a real treat. The only thing I would change in this recipe is to add an additional layer of cream and mangoes. Go big or go home.

A fancy version of this cake is the Mango Torte by Dulcelin in all its homemade goodness. They have a restaurant now, but I still relish fond memories of dropping by a modest house, pressing the buzzer and peering into the grill to get my order.

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People here have gone berserk over desserts that even staples like tapioca, pancakes and soft-serve ice cream are adorned with mangoes.

For the regular fare, we have a local version of the Mexican salsa called ensalada. It is made of diced tomatoes, white or red onions, and semi-ripe green mangoes. I like it with raw eggplant too. It is soaked in white vinegar and is the most perfect, healthy side dish, until you plop a dollop of high-sodium bagoong and mix them all in. Delicious. This pairs well with ANYTHING: grilled tilapia, fried tilapia, daing na bangus, deep-fried pork belly, beef tapa, and crispy pata.

A modified version of the ensalada uses turnip, pomelo, cabbage, and cilantro. It is quite uncommon, but heavenly enough that I had to recreate the recipe in my head after first sampling it at a friend’s home.

Ripe mango may be used for salads, but I doubt if they keep. It works with a Thai salad with catfish, which is fried, so that should not be stored in the fridge.

Excellent yellow and green mangoes are overflowing in the Philippines and that makes them so affordable. You can get 3–4 pieces for $2. They are loaded with Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and fiber, and on their own, are free of sodium, cholesterol, and fat — a true superfood. They could cost a little over that in other countries, but splurge whenever you can. It is a wise investment in your health and overall happiness.

Mangoes are simply a metaphor for what is good in my country. Despite the daily chaos of traffic, political turmoil and abject poverty, I get by knowing that I lucked out. I have nothing to complain about. I get to eat something this good, anytime I want. Not many people have that privilege, even if they can afford it. And I love the Mango Torte. That alone is a reason to live. A big box of that or of your favorite superfood would be a nice surprise for someone who is losing perspective, or who might be sick. Buy it for yourself too because sometimes that is all we need — a little reminder of why we exist.

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Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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