I often wonder how bland a person’s life has to be for them to want their fruit as sickeningly sweet as the mango. The hyped-bottle-of-sugar-syrup-in-the-garb-of-a-fruit has lovers everywhere, including around me, and they will doubtless leap up to protest that some mangoes are sweet and sour. Yet, we all know that the mango has no concept of balance. It is either cloyingly sweet or acerbically sour (as is the kaccha aam or unripened mango). It can never unify the two distinct flavours in perfect harmony.
Like most Indian kids, I grew up with the mango-loving bandwagon, and summer months meant a plateful of mangoes after dinner. I never liked the fruit but had to suffer in silence. Until I discovered the wonders of the apple.
Where the mango tried to marry sweet and sour unsuccessfully, the apple achieved the perfect blend with a flourish. There was no knowing what each bite of an apple could start with. Unlike the mango, which was sweet through and through, an apple could begin sweet and take you on a delectable ride as you masticated each bit or it could start sour and finish the ride with a lingering aftertaste.
The realisation that the apple had character grew clearer when, unlike the gooey, sticky texture of the mango, it let out a loud crunch with each bite. It was a trait which, I would like to think, matched my unbridled temperament.
An eventful life
Yet, like Eve, choosing the apple was not easy for me. Eve lost Paradise and suffered the wrath of God, while I suffered my mother’s disdainful tut-tuts when I grimaced at a plateful of mangoes. The apple taught me (and Eve) to disobey, to rebel and to accept my eccentricities.
Unlike the sedate king of fruits, the apple has had a pretty eventful life. Apart from making Eve a testament of its desirability, the apple’s allure also started the Trojan War. Helen’s beauty may have charmed Paris’s heart, but it was the Golden Apple that became an object of desire of the three Greek goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, and sowed the seeds of discord.
If the mango has among its lovers the Mughal emperor Akbar and the poet Mirza Ghalib, the apple has Catherine the Great and Charles Dickens on its side. Catherine the Great, under whose reign Russia witnessed its Golden Age, loved Golden Pippin apples so much she had them brought over to her palace in Russia, each one wrapped in real silver paper.
Charles Dickens loved a particular variety of apple, the Norfolk Biffin, and mentioned it as a Christmassy dessert in not only A Christmas Carol, but also in Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, and The Boots at the Holly-Tree Inn. In A Christmas Carol, he describes the Biffins as “squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of oranges and lemons, and in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner”. The Norfolk Biffin’s yellow-green colour and taste like cinnamon was perhaps also a favourite of Queen Victoria. who particularly loved baked apples. Closer home, the Sultan of Delhi, Firoz Tughluq, was a great apple lover and grew apple trees throughout Delhi’s hinterland during his reign.
Resilient, flexible and medicinal
Even as the aam aadmi tire themselves discussing which one of the 40 varieties of mango is the sweetest, the apple’s over 7,500 delicious varieties go unappreciated. The diversity is because planting pips from a particular variety of apple will always result in a new variety, different from the parent variety. The apple’s genetic creativity needs the limelight that the uninteresting mango has been hogging. Apple lovers learnt from the fruit’s creativity and instead of making annoyingly sugary drinks such as the mango shake and the aam pannā, they created the drink of the heavens, the cider. Anyone who has had a few sips of this savoury alcoholic beverage would know what a fermented drink should taste like.
The apple’s genetic creativity also makes it resilient and flexible enough to grow even in extremely cold climate as well as under summery sunshine. A Farsi proverb exemplifies the apple’s flexibility with the words “seb tā firod āmadan hazār charkh mī-zanad”, meaning “the apple before coming to the ground turns a thousand summersaults”. The proverb is used to express the view that a great many things can happen in a short time. Perhaps the fact that an apple was instrumental in Newton’s discovery of gravity was not a coincidence. As the proverb goes, a great many things did actually happen in the short period when Newton saw the apple falling to the ground.
Apart from its taste and texture, what makes mangoes less desirable than apples is the fact that mangoes are hardly easy on your stomach. A mango’s tāsīr (from Arabic asar, meaning effect) is warm, which means that should you overdose on mangoes you are likely to get skin rashes. As opposed to this, eating too many apples has no side effects, because its tāsīr is neither too warm nor too cold. The mango’s high sugar content not only gives it a disgusting taste but also makes it a dangerous choice for diabetics. Apples, on the other hand, can even be consumed by diabetics and also have curative properties against the disease. And if you are an Alphonso lover looking to lose weight, you will have to take to the Royal Delicious, because one cup of diced mangoes has double the calories present in one cup of diced apples.
It’s not for no reason that the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was popularised. The apple has more nutritional properties than any other fruit, leave alone mangoes. King Solomon is said to have wished to be comforted with apples when he was sick with love, while the Arabian Nights talk about an apple from Samarqand which could cure all human diseases. The healing properties of the apple were recognised by the Nordic people too who in their mythology regard “Golden Apples” as the fruit granting immortality.
The king of the fruits, therefore, is a lousy king, one of those who wear the crown courtesy their progeny but have no capabilities to grace the throne. The mango is no match for the apple in taste, texture, varieties and uses. It’s not for no reason that it is called aam (ordinary). I would make a case for replacing the mango with the apple as the king of fruits, but the apple of Milton’s Paradise Lost, of Hera’s garden and of Eve’s temptation is too unconventional to be a king.