I was sixteen before I ate a mango. We lived in Puerto Rico in a dilapidated old house with a big tree in the front yard. It bore fruit, which for Alaskan transplants was an act akin to a miracle. We gathered the large ovals, golden with a tinge of red-orange, as greedily as if we were hoarding treasure, and immediately ate them. They were appallingly juicy, tangy and sweet, with a vague taste of turpentine. The peel was tough and we had no idea that we weren't supposed to eat it. Perhaps that's where the turpentine flavor lurks, because I've never found it in a mango since.
In Thailand mangoes are as much a staple as rice. Green mango salad, or somtam, is unofficially the national dish and I have eaten a pick-up truck load of this since I first encountered it. It comes in different versions and different incendiary values. I've lain awake at night for hours with my hands on fire because I made the mistake of eating somtam and sticky rice with my fingers. On the other hand, I ordered it once at a street stall in Ubon Ratchatani and was given shredded mango and peanuts with no chili at all, out of deference for my delicate farang taste buds. I almost sent it back for firepower and then realized that the pure, clear flavor of the mango was like eating cold water.
Less frequently I indulge in mango and sticky rice with coconut cream--it's seasonal and rich and no doubt capable of clogging every artery in my body. I've discovered that if the mango is ripe enough, it is completely luscious without the coconut cream, since the sticky rice is already permeated with it.
I thought I was a mango connoisseur until I had lunch with my friend Amrit in Hong Kong. She ordered dishes I had never had before--I'm still haunted by the butter chicken, which has been unequaled by any place that has served it to me since--and for dessert she chose mangoes with vanilla ice cream. But these were no ordinary mangoes, the menu told us--they were Alphonso mangoes that glowed on our plates.
An ice cream fanatic, after my first taste of mango, I let the vanilla ice cream melt. Its coldness numbed the taste of the mango slices and that was very close to sacrilege. Every mouthful of the Alphonso was a little explosion of sweetness and juice, with a velvety texture that was like a caress. It was almost an act of public indecency to eat this anywhere but in private and I forced myself not to moan.
I am not moving to Penang just so I might be able to savor an Alphonso mango or two in the Indian section of Georgetown, but I certainly hope that I do. They are like Eve's apple--one bite and the world changes forever.