Indian life: Memories of rooftop mangoes

Trade and the convenience of the bottled variety mean we no longer see aunts and grandmothers spreading eatables on the roof to dry.

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This is a distant memory. The kind that you question because you are not sure if it really happened. Up on the roof, grandmothers and aunts would hunch over rows and rows of drying mango and lime, while you and your cousins plotted all kinds of strategy - from destroying the neat rows (because children are cruel like that) to picking a few and stuffing your pockets for a late-evening snack (we never learned from the tummy aches that followed).

It comes once a year, from what I recall. There is a very short period between the summer heat and the clouds gathering overhead, and that is the ideal period for pickling. Especially for mangoes that are just fading. They are no longer as juicy and tender as they were in the height of summer and are best pickled. Mangoes hold a special regard in Indian households. From green, raw mangoes to juicy ripe ones, they are shredded, diced, and chopped and rubbed with dry spices and dried out in the sun, where they dehydrate and shrivel, and the rub becomes super-potent (imagine sucking on one of those along with a soda. Delicious).

Once the elders had managed to stave off the birds and bees, and watched over their stock like a hawk, it would come time for bottling. Heavy, glass jars would be filled with oil (and in some cases just salt and a little water for the lemons) and a few more spices which would slowly seep through the mangoes. Then these containers would sit on the topmost shelves of kitchens, away from the children's prying hands until they were ready in a couple of months.

This is, of course, in the days before Alfonso mangoes were widely exported. Then, there were no greenhouses that grew mangoes all year round. So if the craving kicked in, you opened a jar and dipped in. Now when I think of it, it was almost incredible that the older generation could spread out eatables on a roof and not worry about the pollution in the air. I cannot imagine a nuclear family in Delhi trying to dry their chillies or lemons on a balcony today and leaving no one to constantly watch over the process. Never mind kids, I'd say the birds would have a feast.

Back in the day, it was the effort of a neighbourhood, a community that would fill jars. It never occurred to me to ask my grandmother for a recipe and my aunts gave up making their speciality a long time ago, instead preferring the convenience of the ready-made bottled variety. But nothing tastes better than the real thing. Not even that organic range of pickles shops are peddling these days.