Green Cuisine

The global ties that bind are found in avenues both obvious and unexpected. In this Miami Herald article, chef Maricel Presilla writes of the universality of unripened tropical fruits. From the American South to Latin America to India and Southeast Asia, “each person born in the tropics has a story to tell about green fruits,” says a Columbian horticulturist. Hard peas, mangoes, and papayas have been part of cooking for years, with a premature harvest due to “need, thrift, impatience, and a spirit of culinary experimentation,” she writes. Style varies from place to place. Presilla describes the laid back open-air market enjoyment of green mangoes in Mexico and Columbia, contrasting it with the sophisticated culinary use one may observe in Asia. The methods of preparation and the spices used are products of the local environment, making the permutations of tasty dishes endless – sauces, salsas, slaws, and chutneys are different, yet similar, wherever one goes. Children in Vietnam and India alike climb the mango trees each year, armed with salt and spices, searching for the taste their labors and the unripe fruit will yield. – YaleGlobal

Green Cuisine

The Bracing Bliss of Unripe Mango and Papaya
Maricel E. Presilla
Thursday, May 27, 2004

As June nears, South Florida mango trees hang heavy with hard, green fruit. For all mango lovers, the elliptical spheres dotting those lush canopies are a promise of the juicy harvest ahead. For people of the tropics -- from the Caribbean to South America to Southeast Asia to India -- they are a present-tense pleasure as well.

One can imagine that in the same way green tomatoes were plopped into frying pans in the American South and immature pea pods were tossed into Chinese woks, unripe mango and papaya found their way onto the table through need, thrift, impatience and a spirit of culinary experimentation.

What is certain is that the practice spans the globe.

''Each person born in the tropics has a story to tell about green fruits,'' says Noris Ledesma, a Colombia-born horticulturist working in the tropical fruit program at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.

''As mango season approaches, I become a child again and crave green mangoes seasoned with salt. An old man in a large straw hat used to sell them in small plastic bags in front of my school. They were criollo [``of the land''] mangoes, probably seedlings of Tommy Atkins, and they were so delicious,'' she recalled, smacking her lips with delight.

''In Colombia, green mango with salt is a popular snack eaten in small towns and at the marketplace'' adds Ledesma, who is a mango sleuth. ``It is not the kind of fruit experience you would have in a large town like Bogotá.''

Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans, have a long though simple tradition of eating and cooking with green fruits. In Mexico, a favorite street food is raw green mango seasoned with lime juice, salt and chili powder. The mango is cut into slices or carved out like a flower and served on a stick like a lollipop.

In Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique, green mango is used in chutney-like sauces, savory salsas and raw slaws like Trinidadian mango chow. Most often, though, it is cooked, as is green papaya, which is added to stews in the same way as vegetables, boiled before going into salads or cooked in syrup for dessert.

Ledesma sees the Latin approach to green fruits as casual, quite different from the connoisseurship she has encountered in southern Asia, the cradle of mango cultivation. Mention green mangoes to anyone from that part of the world and you will be regaled with memories of experiencing the pleasurable jolt of an unripe mango.


In an article on first tastes for The New Yorker magazine two years ago, Indian cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey recalled joining the flock of children who attacked her grandfather's green mangoes like hungry birds:

``As the grown-ups snored through the hot summer afternoons . . ., we climbed up the mango trees, armed with a ground mixture of salt, pepper, red chiles and roasted cumin. The older children on the higher branches peeled and sliced the mangoes with penknives and passed the pieces down to the smaller ones on the lower branches. We dipped them into the spices and ate, our tingling mouths telling us that we had ceased to be babies.''

Cookbook author Mai Pham, the chef-owner of Lemon Grass Grill in Sacramento, Calif., has equally vivid and strikingly similar memories of climbing mango trees as a child in Vietnam carrying a mixture of ground chiles and salt (muoi ot) to season the fruit. She and the other children sometimes staged contests, she told me, to see who could eat the most fruit while it still dangled from the branches.

I could hear longing in her voice as she described the taste of the green Elephant or Xoai Tuong mango, a large Vietnamese cultivar, when it is dipped in chiles and salt.

Jaffrey and Pham's recollections reflect a sophisticated Asian understanding of green fruits and a desire to bridge the gap between the raw and the cooked.

''It's an attempt at taming the wild,'' Jaffrey told me in a recent conversation.

Indians use green mangoes in raw and cooked chutneys and dry them to make a souring agent (in slices or ground into a powder called amchoor) that is added to lentils, stews and other dishes the way we might use tomatoes. In Thailand and Vietnam, green mangoes are pickled or used raw in savory salads.

''In southern Asia, green mangoes are a refined image crop,'' says Richard Campbell, the senior curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Garden.

``For Southeast Asians, in particular, the green mango is the whole point. It is both a treat and a quality product. Texture is an important consideration. The flesh needs to be turgid, not flaccid, tasty and quite green, not yellowish.''

Campbell sees himself as engaged in a ``lucha [struggle] to change the image of the green mango in the Americas.''

Fairchild's 12th annual International Mango Festival July 9-11 will showcase a number of Thai cultivars including Nam Doc Mai that are ideal for green cuisine. Like the Elephant mango, Falan, Okrung, Nuwun Chan, Kaiew Sawei and other Southeast Asian varieties, the unripe Nam Doc Mai has crisp, juicy flesh, mild acidity and a pleasant aroma.


For salads, Vietnamese and Thai cooks peel the mango and shred it with a sharp knife while holding it in one hand. (This skillful balancing act is born of necessity, Mai Pham says, because most Southeast Asian kitchens do not have counters.) The mild-tasting fruit is dressed with a combination of sweet, sour, spicy and pungent ingredients.

Chai Siriyarn, chef-owner of the Marnee Thai restaurant in San Francisco, learned his trade from his mother, a street-food vendor in Thailand. He cautioned me against blindly following recipes for green mango salads. Since the fruit varies in sweetness, he advises tasting it first and adjusting the amount of lime, sugar and fish sauce in the dressing. The total effect, Chai explains, must be harmonious.

With green papaya, another important green fruit often used raw in Southeast Asian dishes, such careful adjustments are not necessary. Asian green papayas, which come rock hard to the market, have a neutral flavor. They are a kind of tabula rasa that absorbs other flavors. Thai cooks usually bruise the shredded papaya gently in a clay mortar (never in their heavy-duty stone mortar) so it will better soak up the seasonings.

Thoughts of green tropical fruits bring me back to the small backyard of my parents' home in southwest Miami-Dade County, where the newest generation of my family has learned to savor them. Even before she could speak, my niece Krystinne would sit with my father under our tamarind tree and chew on the tart leaves or suck on the immature pods in quiet concentration until her mouth puckered.

In summer, she would be the first to scout the yard for fallen green mangoes, and would munch on salt-laced slices of the crisp, sour fruit with as much relish as she devoured sweet, juicy, ripe mangoes. Like most children of the tropics, Krystinne learned at an early age to think of tropical fruits as evolving promises, good to eat at every stage.

Copyright 2004 The Miami Herald