The rich, fertile soil of Pakistan and the thunderous rains that nourish it make for delicious tropical fruits. Many of these fruits are luxuries for people relatively well-off, but no matter what the fruit, it’s eaten with appreciation and with its own particular ritual.
It’s impossible to try to remember them all, but I’ll try to remember some of the most famous ones. Sweet, soft leechi pervade your senses with a light perfume as you peel off the knobbly red, paper thin skin. The fruits are translucent white, reminiscent of little rounds of mother-of-pearl wrapped wrapped around a hard central stone.
Little blue-black jaamun grow wild in huge groups on trees, which young boys climb up to spend the day eating jaamun and throwing the seeds down on passing schoolfellows (usually girls they have crushes on). Jaamun are dipped in salt, they stain blue-black anything they touch, and they’re good for diabetes, somehow. My mom really loves these.
Fresh citrus fruits – like malta and limboon – are squeezed to make fresh juice or lemon/limeade (called squash). My dad really loves my grandmother’s fresh orange juice in the winter.
Melons of every kind are also abundant, but a kind of white honeydew is the most popular. Tarbooz (or kharbooza, depends on the variety) come with a funny story. A friend of my dad complained about the lack of adventure with American melons. “Amreeki tarboozon ka bhi kya maza? (What’s the fun in American melons?)” he said, “Every one you buy is sweet. In Pakistan, you bring four melons home, and the whole family sits together to determine which one is the sweetest and most perfumed. ‘Cut me a slice!’ we all cry, and everyone in turn gets a bite of each melon. ‘No, no, that one is horrible, bilkul pheeka hai (it’s completly bland!)’ ‘That one is okay, put it aside there.’ ‘Oh! this one is perfect! Shehad jaisay metha hai! (It is as sweet as honey!)”
But there is no argument about which fruit brings Pakistanis the most pleasure and pride – Aam!. Colored with sunset hues of gold, yellow, and reddish-orange, mangos are called “The King of Fruit.”
If the Inuit have tens of words for snow, well, Pakistanis have a different word for each variety of mango that appears throughout the summer. There’s Duseri, a little fibrous fruit with thin skin that you eat by squeezing till the flesh inside is pureed, then cut a slit in the top and drink down the juicy pulp. Chaunsa, a huge mango with firm flesh that you can cut into cubes and serve with ice cream or custard (i mean huge. gets to be a pound heavy or more, even). Langra, or “crippled man” an ovalur fruit with a tiny curved bottom “leg.” Sindhri, Alphonso, and so many more!
The obsession is pervasive across the whole culture. We’ll buy anything that comes in mango flavor or scent: candy, ice cream, drinks. Upon learning, by some horrible accident, that a Pakistani (like my cousin Sameer) doesn’t like mangos, everyone around him will try to convince him that he must not have ever had a properly ripe mango, or that he should try a particular variety, desperately trying to convince him that he must be mistaken.
And there is certainly a ritual with eating mangoes. They are best eaten cold and one after another, with your sleeves rolled up, and with a big group of laughing friends and family, pulp and juice smeared over everyones faces.
Usually, a paiti (wooden crate) of mangoes is dumped into a big bowl of ice water and set in the center of the room. Children (and often old uncles) are stripped down to their undershirts or bare chests so that the yellow juice won’t irreparably stain their clothing. Younger infants are handed the huge center pit so they can teethe on the soft flesh and smooth pit beneath. With a good set of mangoes, you really don’t even need to eat a meal beforehand!
And oh, what a horror to befall an American traveller, should one be unlucky enough to get some sort of stomach bug, because the fiber in mangos isn’t the best thing for one when you’ve got the runs…..and then one has to sit there, meloncholy, while everyone else digs in (no, I’m not bitter, why would you say that?)
My favorite mango eating memory was in Kashmir, where my parents and I went to visit an old college friend of my dad’s. We had a light lunch, and then went for a walk on the banks of the Jhelum and Neelam rivers as they intersected in the valley. The mountain ice had made the rivers freezing cold, so we left a crate of mangoes in the flowing water, lodged between rocks, while we walked around. An hour later, we had an ice cold mango picnic, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the summer Himalayan mountains.
So strong is our obsession, that even the rule of law cannot remove us from our beloved fruit.
I remember once leaving Islamabad to come back home. We went from Islamabad to London to Raleigh, and I noticed one Pakistani family following us the whole way. When we got to Customs at RDU Airport, I noticed that the father was carrying a large shopping bag. It was tied at the top, but the unmistakable bulge of several round fruits were visible from the outside. The small room smelled resolutely of mangoes. The man and his family come to the customs desk, and the Officer eyed him suspiciously.
“Sir, are you carrying any food?” he asked.
“Sir….what’s in the bag?”
Needless to say, they were confiscated. But at least he tried!