A Passion for Mangoes

Mangoes have been a favourite fruit of mine ever since I was a child. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love them. Growing up, as I did, in Ghana, Trinidad and then Singapore, mangoes were the fruit of my childhood, plentifully and lusciously available. Documentary proof of my long-held delight in mangoes is contained in the family photo albums.

Me as a toddler reaching for mangoes in our garden in Ghana
Mangoes from our tree in Ghana – I look triumphant!

Finding mangoes when I lived in Florence as a teenager was rather harder, so they became a rare treat. I remember the thrill of finding a mango miraculously nestled in my Christmas stocking one year. Living in London, the mangoes found in British supermarkets were a disappointment: expensive, stonily hard and lacking in flavour. Chinese food shops in Chinatown proved a much better source and that was where I would go to buy mangoes, such as elegant, distinctively curved, smooth-fleshed pale yellow Thai mangoes with a pine note to their flavour. While researching my shopping guide Food Lovers London, I discovered that Indian food shops stocked boxes of mangoes called Alphonso – briefly in season during April and May. This was the mango as I remembered it – orange-fleshed, voluptuously textured and juicy.In one of childhood books, My Friend Mr Leakey, the magician Mr Leakey advises: “The only proper place to eat a mango is in your bath. You see it has a tough skin and a squashy inside, so when once you get through the skin all the juice squirts out. And that would make a nasty mess of people’s white shirts.” The author J.S. Haldane must have had Alphonso mangoes in mind.

A journey to Ealing Road in Wembley, Goodeats in Finchley Central or the Spice Shop in Drummond Street to buy boxes of Alphonso mangoes had become one of our springtime family rituals. Served after a meal with family and friends the most I might do in terms of preparation is slice the cheeks off, cut a criss-cross pattern and transform them into a mango ‘hedgehog’ for ease of eating. My favourite part of eating a mango, however, is eating the soft flesh off the hard stone – “cook’s perk” I called it in one of my books – the flesh somehow seems to taste more intensely here, rather like meat close to the bone.

A box of Alphonso mangoes

When it comes to inspiration for using ingredients imaginatively, creatively and deliciously one of my favourite chefs is Yotam Ottolenghi, so I asked him for his thoughts on mangoes. Ottolenghi, too, has happy memories of mangoes from childhood. “We had mangoes in Israel when I was growing up. A different variety from the Alphonso, larger, firmer and not as sweet. I’ve always loved mangoes. We would always simply peel it and eat it; perhaps, at the most, we might use a mango in a fruit salad. It would never have been used in savoury dishes. My family wouldn’t have dreamt of doing the outrageous things that I do with it!”

One of the culinary appeals of the mango for Ottolenghi is its texture. “Mango is a fruit that you can cook with,” he points out. “Unlike papaya which simply disintegrates, it’s got a low water content, so you can cook with it. It really keeps its identity in the dish – sometimes you want ingredients to soak up all the flavour, like a sponge, so like aubergines. Other ingredients retain their character in a dish – and every time you meet it in a bite, it’s there.”

“Because the Alphonso grows in India in the heat it has an extreme sweetness, perfumed from so much sun. Does really take you to India when you eat one. One of my recipes using Alphonsos was a curried chickpea salad – behind the dish was the idea of where the Alphonso mango comes from – so the chickpea salad was flavoured with mustard seeds, coriander seeds and turmeric. It’s a lot about texture. I wanted the chickpeas to be very soft to go with the soft Alphonso mangoes.” With his characteristic eye for the details of his dishes, Ottolenghi is very discriminating when it comes to which variety of mango to use. “For some of my salads that contain mango, I wouldn’t use Alphonso as it could be too dominant, a little bit too much,” he observes.” There’s a butterbean, cashew nut and rice noodle salad I make – Asian flavours, with lots of mint – I use normal mango in it, not Alphonso, for that dish I want a mango that blends in.”

Ottolenghi also enjoys using mangoes in sweet dishes. “Alphonso mangoes are one of the best fruits for ice cream,” he recommends. “It’s very easy to make an ice cream that’s not icy as it doesn’t have a lot of water in it. You can make it easily at home, even if you don’t have an ice cream maker. At Nopi we’ve just introduced a new dessert which is very popular, thought of by John our pastry chef there. It’s a combination of mango with lime: a little glass with a layer of mango at the bottom, kaffir lime curd in the middle, mango tapioca and diced Alphonso on top. All the different types of sweetness – the sheer sweetness of the meringue, the fruity sweetness of the mango – work very well.”

We’re not the only ones to enjoy a box of mangoes . . .

A Liking for Laksa

Jenny’s Laksa

On the list of foods I turn to for comfort eating, laksa comes pretty high. This South-East Asian, fishy noodle soup always reminds me of Singapore, bringing back happy memories of meals with my family there. While laksa is simply a one-pot meal, it’s the contrasting flavours and textures contained in that one bowl which make it special. The rich, spicy soup contrasts deliciously with the plain noodles, the cool pieces of cucumber and slightly crunchy bean sprouts. There is something very pleasurable about slurping up the slippery noodles and hunting for a juicy prawn or bouncy fish ball.

As is characteristic of South East Asian dishes, there are many, many recipes for laksa. One broad distinction is between ‘laksa lemak’, made with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk, and the tangy Penang laksa, made from a tamarind-flavoured fish stock, which I ate at Gurney Drive esplanade in Penang. A truly memorable laksa I enjoyed was chef Peter Gordon’s smoked chicken laksa, served in small bowls as a sensationally flavourful canapé at a smart drinks reception.
The recipe below comes from my Singaporean uncle, Kim Bong, who cooks a vast pot of laksa for family get-togethers, nipping out to pick the laksa leaf from his garden as a garnish just before serving it. Ingredients such as galangal, blachan, dried shrimps and Chinese fish balls can all be bought in Chinese supermarkets. The addition of dried shrimps – finely ground in a food processor – both thickens the broth and gives a fishy sweetness. I sometimes make this using home-made prawn stock as the base for an extra punch of seafood flavour. You can add in fried tofu, chunks of salmon, chopped up squid or different types of noodles as you wish. It’s one of those dishes that lends itself to experimenting with.
Uncle Kim’s Laksa
(serves four)
3 stalks of lemon grass
2 small onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
a 5 cm piece of galangal, peeled and chopped
1 tsp blachan (dried shrimp paste)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground chilli
4 tsp ground coriander
225g of bean sprouts, blanched
450g fresh thick round Chinese noodles
2-3 tbsp oil
2 x 400ml tins of coconut milk
75g dried shrimps, finely ground
200g Chinese white fish balls
8 raw peeled tiger prawns
1/2 cucumber, peeled and cut into short fine strips
a handful of laksa leaf (Vietnamese coriander) or coriander sprigs

Peel the tough outer casing from lemon grass and finely chop the white bulbous part of the stalks. Blend together the lemon grass, onion, garlic, galangal, blachan, turmeric, chilli and ground coriander into a paste.
Divide the noodles and bean sprouts among four deep serving bowls.
Heat the oil in a large,, heavy-based saucepan. Fry the onion paste, stirring often, for 10 minutes till fragrant. Mix in the coconut milk and, stirring, bring to the boil. Mix in the ground dried shrimps and simmer for 5 minutes. Add in the fish balls and tiger prawns. Simmer gently until the fish balls are heated through and the prawns cooked; a matter of minutes. Taste and season with salt, if required.
Pour the coconut soup over the noodles and bean sprouts. Top with cucumber shreds and coriander and serve at once.