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The redolent Mango

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-06-2014 Pamela Timms

When the European Union banned the import of mangoes earlier this summer, there was a nationwide wave of jubilation—“Hurrah! All the more for us!” “More fools them!”, etc. As it turns out, the celebrations were to be short-lived and Europe may well have dodged a bullet—although perhaps not the bullet they thought they were dodging.

The real threat to mangoes, it now emerges, is not the fruit flies discovered by Brussels bureaucrats but the widespread use of what growers and traders quaintly refer to as a special “masala”. This “masala” is in fact a hazardous chemical called calcium carbide, a substance banned in India under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, but still routinely used to artificially ripen mangoes. Calcium carbide is easily and cheaply procured—around `100 per kilo, enough to ripen over 100 dozen mangoes—but is thought to cause cancer and neurological problems (incidentally, this potentially lethal chemical is often packed into little sachets by migrant child labourers using no safety equipment).

I decided to check it out with my fruit and vegetable supplier in New Delhi’s INA market this week, expecting strenuous denials and assurances of top-quality produce. Unfortunately, he said, it’s true—and not just for mangoes—but there’s very little any of us can do about it. Why can’t the farmers let fruits and vegetables ripen naturally? Because, he said, the demand for produce in India is so high that farmers would not be able to produce enough by natural methods—most of their crops would be lost to disease, rotting and pilferage.

My vendor also told me that the magic masala has enabled growers to prolong the lucrative mango season by artificially ripening green fruit earlier in the year. There are aesthetic concerns too: When mangoes are unripe, they are completely unblemished; if left to ripen naturally they develop marks which consumers find unappealing. With calcium carbide, the skin remains pristine. Everyone knows that customers’ health is being affected, he said, but there seems to be no alternative. “The law is not there to protect people—it’s only there for the benefit of officials who take bribes. What can we do? We know this food is bad for our children. All we can do is accept that we might not live so long.”

Apart from the health risks we’re running with our insatiable desire for mangoes, my main concern is that artificially ripened fruit never tastes as good as the naturally ripened—not only are our beloved mangoes killing us, they don’t taste that great either. In a bid to distract me from the killer fruit and vegetables, he then pulled out some beautiful Bengali gondhoraj lime.

It did the trick; I was instantly more concerned about what I could bake with them. They are similar to kaffir limes, with an intense fragrant flavour and aroma, so I decided to take my life in my hands and team the limes with mango to make a quick “cheesecake”. This isn’t a true cheesecake in that it’s not baked or even set with gelatin, but it does use all the creamy flavours of a cheesecake, and best of all in this heat, it takes only a few minutes to make. For added chill, you could even keep it in the freezer and it will be a sort of cheesecake semifreddo.

I’m certainly feeling very uneasy about mango season this year and I have tried, where possible, to source organic fruit. I urge you to do likewise—failing that, I’m afraid this dessert could well take minutes off your life.

Gondhoraj Lime and Mango Cheesecake

Serves 8

Ingredients

150g ginger biscuits

50g unsalted butter, melted

200ml whipping cream

300g cream cheese (Philadelphia is the best)

75g icing sugar

Finely grated zest and juice of gondhoraj limes (or nimbu/lemons if gondhoraj are not available)

1-2 mangoes, finely chopped

You will need a 20cm cake tin

Method

Crush the biscuits in a food processor and add the melted butter. Press the mixture into the bottom of the cake tin in an even layer, then put in the fridge or freezer while you make the filling.

In a large bowl, whisk the whipping cream until stiff. In another bowl, beat the cream cheese, icing sugar, lime zest and juice until smooth. Gently fold the cream into the cheese mixture, then spread this evenly over the biscuit base. Put in the fridge (or freezer) for at least 4 hours or overnight. When you’re ready to serve, put the chopped mango on top and grate more lime zest on top. Serve well chilled.

Pamela Timms is a New Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.

Also Read | Pamela’s previous Lounge columns

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