Cooking in the Tropics: Arroz con Mango?
Today I am sitting in my office, hiding from the incredible wind storm that has been raging around Tamarindo for the past few days. I’m answering emails, and every once in a while my concentration is broken by what sounds like a bowling alley on my roof. This sound is as much a part of the season as the wind and the blazing sun of early March. It is the sound of falling mangoes on a corrugated zinc roof. The wind is partially responsible for dislodging the fruit that rolls down the roof of our casita and plunks into the garden. But usually, the howler monkeys are the ones who are responsible for the half-eaten fruit that is disturbing my wa.
I once read that howler monkeys “enjoy an energetically conservative lifestyle”. Yep, not only are howlers some of the loudest creatures on earth, they are also among the laziest. Right now there’s a family of four howlers sacked out on their stomachs in my mango tree, legs and arms dangling, sleeping off their mid-afternoon snack. If someone were to ask me for an image of sybaritic pleasure, I would have to say it was the sight of a howler on a mango limb lying on his back with one leg crossed over, reaching up for a mango, taking a few bites, and then letting the fruit drop ON MY ROOF!
I just asked Hugo, our gardener, who spends a lot of time collecting half-eaten fruits, why the monkeys only eat a few bites of the fruit and then discard it. He doesn’t know why, so I’m sticking with my fantasy of the partially-eaten fruit as an indication of the indulgent, extravagant, slacking nature of the howler monkey.
We used to rake the mangos into a pile at the base of the tree, thinking that the fruit would provide much-needed nutrients for the soil. That pile of rotting, half-eaten mangoes attracted clouds of butterflies and moths – it seems that rotten fruit is the elixir of almost all butterfly species. They do not really eat the fruit but suck in the juice of the fruit through the proboscis, getting high on the sugar, and then wobbling away in a drunken reverie. Our mango piles were butterfly saloons.
Mangos are native to India and have been cultivated in South Asia for thousands of years. Mangos are the apples of the tropics, coming in different colors, shapes, and sizes. They are grown throughout the tropical world and are in fact the world’s most eaten fresh fruit. Mangos are available year round but harvest peaks here in Guanacaste in March and April.
I love mangos. So do all the Ticos I know. The same trees that attract the monkeys and the butterflies also attract locals who ask if they can pick the green fruit which they eat with salt on the spot. Mangoes can be a little sour when they are not totally ripe, but when they are ripe there is nothing sweeter.
This is also avocado season, and I love to combine mangoes with avocados in a salad with fresh mint and red onion. This is a great salad to serve with chilled jumbo shrimp. Dress the whole salad with a combination of lime and olive oil, with a little salt and pepper. Delicious.
One of our most popular appetizers is a Vietnamese summer roll, with mango and avocado, mixed greens, chives, mint & arugula, served with Thai sweet chili sauce. Add some chilled shrimp to the mix, or leftover chicken or sliced steak.
Mangoes are great desserts. I like mango smoothies made with mint and lime. The same mixture is great frozen and eaten as a sorbet. But when my friend Helen saw the Thai dessert “mango rice” on our menu, she couldn’t stop laughing. “Arroz con mango” is a saying used throughout Latin America that means, “what a mess.” When cooking in the tropics and you check the pantry to find ingredients that might be combined to make a delicious dish, don’t combine rice and mango – they don’t go together, right? Wrong. Though Helen laughed, she likes Arroz con mango. Eating things we never thought we’d like is a big part of discovery and growth. Letting go of one’s preconceived notions often leads to delight. Try something new today, you might like it.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.