Those sour grapes of summer

by Gautam Raja

I’ve just had a snack of one of the most quintessentially Indian signs of a fast approaching summer: green mango dipped in salt. “Snack” is a strange term to use, because one doesn’t eat green mango to alleviate hunger. The raw fruit is excruciatingly sour—especially the first bite that seems to make your mouth turn inside out, even as everyone else in the room puckers their faces.

Eating green mango always takes me back to summer afternoons on our farm, where my brother and I would head to the mango tree on the edge of the property, armed with an air gun or catapult, a long stick and a few piles of stones. Trying to score a hit on a mango stem to down a fruit was as much a part of the fun as the eating, so a happy hour or so would be whiled away collecting the choicest mangoes. Still weeping from the cut stems, the spoils would be rushed to kitchen where they’d be washed and cut up to be dipped in a mixture of salt and chilli powder, and eaten—my father frequently getting up from his nap to join us.

Sometimes we’d grate the raw mangoes and mix them with a little vinegar, salt and chilli powder, and let the mixture pickle for a while (we’d aim to leave it for a day, but would usually not wait even an hour). My brother and I were both so into sour things that I wonder if we had some sort of deficiency. Our household would go through bottles of mango pickle at an amazing rate—both of us would eat the stuff plain as an afternoon or evening snack as we read our books. Sometimes, the sour hit just wasn’t enough, and I’d mix up a shot of vinegar with salt and chilli powder, and spoon that into my mouth as if it was a delicate soup.

Our other favourite was raw Malta limes from the trees behind the farmhouse. We’d bite the peel off them, and when our mouths started to burn unbearably, we’d run around looking for clover (which is also sour) to pick by the handful and eat. The peeled limes would again be dipped into the salt and chilli mix, and eaten out of hand as if they were no more than apples.

But the king of sour fruit has to be green tamarind, one bite of which will make your salivary glands explode. Just thinking about it now is making each of my teeth squirm and try to wriggle out of its socket—I don’t think I’d manage more than a bite today, but those days we’d get through several pods on a good afternoon. Grown-ups then would issue warnings of terrible stomach aches if we ate too much of these green things, but I don’t recall any of us having to even clutch the belly in passing. The other problem of course, is if you’re eating raw fruit on a farm, there’s less ripe fruit available for sale, so I have to say an added attraction was that many of these “snacks” were stolen—including the bunches of green grapes (as in, unripe red grapes) from the neighbouring farm.

Like ours, that farm has gone now, and the farmer is now a shopkeeper, running a tiny general store on the corner. I bought some glucose biscuits from him this morning, a little sweet that may have paid back for that stolen tartness—but what price do you put on the perfect summer’s afternoon? One where the little foxes actually get the grapes, and are glad that they are sour?

First published in Gulf News, February 19, 2013