We know that spring has arrived in Mexico City when street carts crowned with whole mangoes begin to roll into town. While wandering the Centro Histórico’s bustling streets just last week, we bumped into Maria, a seasonal worker whose cart is currently laden with this favorite springtime fruit.
Intrigued, we stopped to watch as she deftly skewered the mango in her hand with a stick, peeled off the skin, made decorative cuts to transform the bright orange flesh into a beautiful flower, which she then brushed with chamoy, a classic Mexican sauce, and dipped in one of the brightly colored powders stored in plastic boxes: salsa tajín, chamoy, salt, chile or everything mixed together.
Born in Estado de México, an area known as tierra caliente due to the dry, hot weather (the temperature rarely goes below 34 degrees Celsius), Maria came to Mexico City a few years ago with some family members to work in the ever-busy Barrio de la Merced, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of the Centro Histórico. She mostly parks her cart on the corner of Justo Sierra and Loreto, just a few steps from the city’s oldest synagogue and a busy intersection that doesn’t show signs of slowing down, even with the pandemic. When we ask about the source of her mangoes, she explains that she gets them from La Central de Abasto, Mexico City’s massive wholesale market that connects the metropolis with produce from all over the country.
While fresh fruits liven up every season in Mexico, spring offers the richest variety, with the mango being a perennial favorite. But this gift of nature, carted around by street vendors and sold in the city’s many markets, is by no means singular – in Mexico, the term mango is used for about 50 different varieties with a wide range of shapes and sizes. We tend to gravitate to the Ataulfo mango, the same variety that graced Maria’s stand.
But to talk about mangoes in Mexico, we need to go back to the 16th century, when Portugal and Spain attempted to reach the Spice Islands by navigating westward. The skilled sailor Ferdinand Magellan commanded an expedition that circumnavigated the globe between 1519 and 1522, a sea voyage that the Castilian explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano completed after Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines.
Over two decades years later, in 1564, Admiral Miguel López de Legazpi and Friar Andrés de Urdaneta departed from Barra de Navidad, located in the modern-day State of Jalisco, on a journey to the Philippines. Legazpi became its first governor, and Urdaneta became famous for finding his way back to Acapulco, a round-trip journey that others had failed time and again. This trip, known as tornaviaje, inaugurated 250 years of very intense cultural and commercial activities between Asia, America and Europe for the first time in history.
While Mexico would send silver, gold, cochinilla (an insect that lives on the cactus and was used since pre-Hispanic times to dye clothes), cacao, corn, chiles, fruits like pitahaya (known as around the world as dragon fruit), leather goods and much more to Manila, in return the Manila galleons would carry silk, spices, wood, rice and – most important for us – mango to Acapulco.
The Mexican culinary researcher and chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita writes in his Larousse Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana that the mango came to Mexico on a galleon from Manila at the end of the 17th century. Native to Sri Lanka, India and the Malay Archipelago, the fruit easily adapted to Mexico and was soon cultivated across the country. By the 19th century, it had become one of Mexico’s most important fruits.
Of the many varieties available at Mexico City’s markets – including cocoyo, criollo, Manila, niño, oro, panameño, paraíso and more – the Ataulfo mango is the only one to have received an appellation of origin from the Mexican government, a protection given to traditional ingredients that are crucial to the country’s cuisine.
In Mexico, the term mango is used for about 50 different varieties with a wide range of shapes and sizes.
What makes this mango so unique? First off, it’s incredibly sweet, not too acidic and contains very little fiber. A descendent of the Philippine mango that traveled to Mexico aboard the Manila galleons, its origins date to the mid-20th century, when the farmer Ataulfo Morales and agricultural engineer Héctor Cano Flores first began to experiment with different grafts and hybridizations, eventually creating the Ataulfo mango.
Grown in Soconusco, a region in the State of Chiapas, the Ataulfo mango is harvested mainly between February and March, and travels well thanks to its thick skin. Annual production reaches 176,000 tons, making this mango a very important economic force that fuels jobs, agroindustry, commercial channels, infrastructure and research. As well as rolling carts like Maria’s, which gussy up this spring favorite and put it directly into the hands of chilangos.
To celebrate mango season in Mexico City, we’re sharing this recipe for mango chutney by María Gabriela Hernández, a cook from San Miguel de Allende. ¡Buen provecho!
Recipe: Mango Chutney
2 mangoes petacones, chopped in medium-size cubes
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cup of chopped raisins
1 red pepper, chopped in small cubes
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium-size piece of ginger, grated
5 cayenne peppers
½ cup apple vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp chopped serrano chile
2 tsp oil
1 pinch of cumin
1 small cinnamon stick
Put the onion, pepper, ginger, garlic and mango in a previously heated wok or big pan. Sauté for ten minutes. Then add the remaining ingredients to simmer for another 45-60 minutes over low heat. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve.
Editor’s note: Here at Culinary Backstreets, we eagerly await the coming of spring each year, not just for the nicer weather but also because some of our favorite foods and dishes are at their best – or indeed, are only available – for a short period during this season. So we are running a weeklong celebration – “Spring (Food) Break 2021” – of our favorite springtime eats.
This article was originally published on April 9, 2021.